Grand Forks City Council members stepped away sharply from a proposed citywide ban on chickens kept within city limits.

Council President Dana Sande’s motion on Tuesday to vote on an amendment to city code that would keep Grand Forks residents from owning chickens within city limits died when no other council members seconded it. Instead, council members are set to consider later this month tweaks to the city’s existing chicken policy that could, for instance, require would-be chicken owners to get permission from more of their neighbors or set an upper limit to the number of birds a given resident could have on their property.

Before their vote, council members listened to several residents speak against the proposed ban, including former Grand Forks resident C.T. Marhula, who, tongue planted firmly in cheek, quoted American revolutionary Thomas Paine, political icon Robert Kennedy and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. as he argued in favor of the fowl.

“These are times that try men’s souls,” Marhula said during the meeting, quoting Paine.

He drove from his home in Bemidji, Minn., to speak at the meeting, wearing a white Colonel Sanders costume he borrowed from a friend.

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“This is a slippery slope. ... Who knows? PETA may well kidnap our own UND hawk and hold it for ransom in Fargo.”

The meeting, by sheer coincidence, was held the same day as National Fried Chicken Day.

Objections

Beyond a broad objection to keeping farm animals in a city, Sande has said the animals rile up nearby domestic animals and present an avenue through which neighbors can quarrel with one another.

“For me, this was about having the conversation, and an open conversation, about why we have chickens currently in our city and if it is a reasonable approach,” Sande said Tuesday. “My concern is whether our community in general feels that chickens should be part of our residential life or not. My feeling was and still is: chickens are a farm animal, and, in my opinion, belong on a farm and don't belong inside city limits.”

Grand Forks City Code currently bans chickens and other fowl, but it leaves an exception for people who receive annual permits from Grand Forks Public Health administrators. The birds’ coop must be at least 75 feet from other houses unless neighbors who live closer than that have given written permission. That radius was reduced from 200 feet in 2008. Council members are set to consider expanding that distance back to 200 feet and, perhaps, requiring chicken owners to measure it from their property lines, not the chickens’ enclosure.

Permits

Currently, the only Grand Forks resident with an active permit is Jacob Willardson, a 12-year-old who lives with his parents near King’s Walk golf course. In the family’s backyard is a coop that’s home to six chickens that were a COVID-19 pandemic project for Willardson, who has since bought four more chicks that the family plans to give away when they’re grown. Willardson’s permit stipulates that he has six chickens, not 10. His mom, Sara Willardson, said they bought the four new birds after re-upping their permit with the city.

The Willardsons live in Sande’s ward and, presumably, are the subject of at least one resident’s complaint to the council president. Sande declined to name the residents who’ve complained. Other residents, however, have apparently been keeping chickens without a permit. Grand Forks Public Health staff received two applications to keep chickens -- one of which is an application to renew an expired permit – after council members’ 4-3 vote last week to advance the now-defeated ban to Tuesday’s meeting.

“We have things that our neighbors do all the time that we don't agree with. I don't feel it's right for us to tell our neighbors what they can and can't do, though, unless there is a true reason that it's disturbing us,” Sara Willardson told council members. “I think there is a way we can work together to come to a common ground as far as -- there needs to be rules in place. Obviously, they need to be contained. But, as far as prohibiting them, I think that was going a little too far.”

Canad Inn refinances, city budget amended

In related news, council members:

  • Agreed to allow Canad Inn to, in effect, refinance the loan it took out to build its hotel adjacent to the city-owned Alerus Center by assigning the loan documents from Stearns Bank to Bremer Bank. The Manitoba-based hotel chain’s lease with the city gives Grand Forks officials the right to refuse those sorts of changes.
  • Amended the city’s budget to account for $125,000 from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, plus $112,802 from a federal “high-intensity drug trafficking area” grant for the Grand Forks Narcotics Task Force. The grant is paid for by the Office of National Drug Control Policy.