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Grand Forks boy to seek chicken permit renewal under stricter city policy

Grand Forks City Council members agreed on Aug. 2 to set an upper limit on the number of chickens and other fowl residents can keep on their property. That includes requiring permission from a presumably wider array of neighbors.

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Stella, Mother Clucker, and Lena roam the Willardson family's Grand Forks back yard on Thursday, July 1, 2021. Joe Bowen/Grand Forks Herald

A young Grand Forks resident is set to try to renew his residential chicken permit under now-tougher city restrictions on the birds.

Twelve-year-old Jacob Willardson plans to go door-to-door this fall, according to mom Sara Willardson, to see if his neighbors will grant the written permission he needs to renew a city permit to keep chickens in his backyard for another year.

“To know if we can have them in the future or not,” Sara told the Herald. “I don’t want to make any enemies in the neighborhood.”

The Willardsons currently have a permit to keep six chickens throughout 2021 on their property near King’s Walk golf course in southern Grand Forks, but that permit was issued under city policies that have since been tightened. On Aug. 2, Grand Forks City Council members agreed to limit residents to six chickens apiece and, more importantly for Jacob Willardson, require them to get written approval from everyone who owns property within 65 feet of the property on which the chickens will live.

Previously, city policy didn’t specify an upper limit on fowl and required would-be chicken owners to get the go-ahead from everyone who owns a home within 75 feet of the chickens’ coop. The new distance is smaller than before, of course, but measuring 65 feet from the property line, rather than the coop, and counting every property within that distance, rather than every home, presumably means the policy change will prompt residents to seek approval from more of their neighbors.

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Getting permission from more neighbors could prove to be a problem for the Willardsons because, Sara suspects, someone in their neighborhood doesn’t approve of the chickens. When the previous policy was in effect, Jacob got the necessary permission from the neighbors on either side of his family’s house, but not from any of the neighbors whose backyards abut his. The new city policy would mean he would need to get the same approval from at least two more homeowners plus, possibly, the Grand Forks Park District, which owns the golf course across the street from the Willardson home. Every property owner within that 65-foot zone needs to sign off on a resident’s chickens before a permit is issued.

At least one person complained about residential chickens to City Council President Dana Sande, who initially proposed banning the birds outright , arguing that they are farm animals that do not belong in a city. Sande said he had heard complaints about chickens owned by a resident of his ward, which encompasses the Willardsons’ neighborhood, but he declined to detail those complaints.

Jacob Willardson was the only person in the city permitted to have chickens when Sande first floated the policy change, and four other residents -- all of whom live outside Sande’s Ward 6 -- applied for a permit between then and the council’s vote at the beginning of this month. No one has applied for a permit since the policy was changed, according to city staff.

The six chickens for which Jacob is permitted, plus four chicks for which he is not, have been living with family friends outside city limits for a few weeks, Sara said, to accommodate Jacob’s schedule on a traveling baseball team.

“I’m curious what difference it’s made,” Sara said. “That’ll be my biggest thing, actually, is when we go to the neighbors, if anyone even knows there’s a difference.”

Joe Bowen is an award-winning reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He covers schools and education across the Northland.

You can reach him at:
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