Citizens ask for urban chickens in Sturgis, while some commissioners balk at the prospect

Citizen Chuck Huber spoke at Wednesday's Sturgis City Commission meeting, asking for the issue of urban chickens to be placed on the ballot. “Let people of the city decide.” (Beca Welty|Watershed Voice)

Sturgis city commissioners Wednesday voted 8-1 in favor of the city’s planning commission developing a recommendation regarding urban chickens within city limits, with Commissioner Robert Hile as the lone dissenting vote.

The issue of urban chickens was originally discussed in 2011, and further discussion came in 2021, when the city commission and planning commission both looked into the topic, and whether to do additional work on the subject. Ultimately, at the September 20, 2021 city commission meeting, there was no consensus to refer the matter back to the planning commission for review. At the previous March 8 meeting, commissioners requested information on past work done on the topic of urban chickens, and to put the topic on the agenda for the March 22 meeting for further discussion.

“I just can’t see chickens in the City of Sturgis. If you’re going to have chickens, go out and buy a farm,” Commissioner Robert Hile said. (Beca Welty|Watershed Voice)

Hile spoke first on the topic. “I just can’t see chickens in the City of Sturgis. If you’re going to have chickens, go out and buy a farm.” This was met by outbursts from the packed chambers, with one resident yelling, “We can’t afford it, sir!” Hile continued, “I have a nice home here in Sturgis, I’ve got a beautiful backyard. It’s getting to the point I can’t even go out and sit by my pool because I’ve got a neighbor who smokes marijuana. I don’t want to add chicken smell to that, too.”

Hile said the city already has issues regulating dogs and cats, and he does not want to add chickens to the list of problems. “I do not believe in chickens being in the city,” he said as he closed his remarks. “Next thing folks are going to come and say, ‘let’s put cows in the city.’ Next thing you’re going to do, you’re going to ask for pigs and lambs. Now, we’re farmers. I just don’t see the need for chickens in the city.”

Commissioner Travis Klinger said he was a “firm supporter” for urban chickens when the issue was brought to the commission in 2021. Klinger spoke of ordinances from Ann Arbor being used as an example for Sturgis, and said he hoped a sample ordinance from Albion could be considered, as well. “Albion has a really good (ordinance),” he said. “Permits are cyclical, and they expire every so often. They have a fair limit, and it’s based on size of property.” Klinger said he made the suggestion because of the large demographic difference between Ann Arbor and Sturgis, whereas Albion’s population size and square mileage is “near close to the same.”

“The thought of being able to own chickens in town has always been an excitement for me. When I found out they weren’t allowed, I was very upset,” citizen Rudie Lantz said. (Beca Welty|Watershed Voice)

Mayor Jeff Mullins opened the discussion for public comment with citizen Rudie Lantz speaking first. “I grew up on a farm. The thought of being able to own chickens in town has always been an excitement for me. When I found out they weren’t allowed, I was very upset,” she said. Lantz said she understood the frustration and worry regarding chickens being a nuisance, but said she believes those do not outweigh the opportunities that would come from children experiencing and learning from raising the animals. “This world is just going to keep getting worse, it’s not going to get better. We need to teach our children how to take care of themselves because they’re going to need that knowledge,” she said. 

Kelly Lawrence spoke next, saying she probably won’t have chickens, but she supports the initiative. “I feel like along with the economy and the rising food costs a lot of people are also concerned about what’s going into the food,” she said. “Sometimes we want more control over our food than just what’s available to us in the store, because there’s a lot of things in that food.” Lawrence also responded to Hile’s comment regarding buying farm land in the country telling him she is a single mom, a homeowner, and cannot afford living in the country.

Wiesloch Raum packed to capacity with citizens waiting for their opportunity to speak regarding urban chickens. (Beca Welty|Watershed Voice)

It was standing-room only in Wiesloch Raum as citizens took to the podium to speak in favor of urban chickens for nearly 45 minutes. Many citizen comments echoed the same sentiment, while they do not personally have plans to own chickens, they are in support of others owning them, as long as there will be reasonable and common sense restrictions in place. Resident Tracy Galindo suggested violations, such as first, second, and third offenses to help regulate the ordinance. Chuck Huber proposed an option to put the decision on a future ballot saying, “I think instead of wasting everybody’s time and our tax dollars, let’s (put it on the ballot). Solve all this hassle. Let people of this city decide.”

With public comments closed, Mullins offered his own perspective on the issue. He said he understood many people in attendance were for the ordinance, but he did not hear any support from the numerous members of the community he spoke with prior to the meeting. He said the residents he spoke to were not necessarily opposed to having chickens, as long as they weren’t next door to them. “With that said, I vote based on basic constituent numbers, and what I hear, and who I hear it from — specifically city residents. It’s the same as the cannabis discussions we’ve had over the years. I’m not a cannabis guy, but just because I’m not doesn’t mean that I’m going to put my will on the people that I represent,” he said.

Mullins said he would vote the way the people he represents want him to vote. “What I’m feeling in my heart is that people that I represent, that I speak to, are not in favor of, and therefore I would not choose to bring the subject back,” he said. Mullins ended by saying he agreed with Huber, and putting the issue on a future ballot would be “a great way to get the pulse of the entire city, and not just the individuals that we know and that we run into on a day-to-day basis.”

City Clerk Kenneth Rhodes explained the steps necessary to get an initiative on a ballot. “There could be a petition from the citizens, or the commission can move forward with their own proposal,” he said. He also clarified the City of Sturgis would have to pay if it was a special election held just for the urban chickens issue, but if it went to a primary election the initiative would simply be added. Mullins said he would not be in favor of having a special election for the specific topic as it would cost money to the city.

City Attorney TJ Reed spoke regarding the next steps for the process. “When the planning commission makes recommendations back to the commission, the commission is not bound to follow that recommendation,” he said, “and there are times when the commission will deviate from the recommendation of the planning commission.” Reed explained to commissioners they could take the input from the planning commission if the commission chose to do a ballot initiative, and utilize their framework to come up with ballot language. “Their input would still be very valuable, and I believe the planning commission serves a very important role in the development, whether it be ballot language or an ultimate ordinance.”

Commissioners voted next, with a 8-1 decision to recommend the planning commission work toward a proposal to be brought back to the city for consideration. Klinger spoke once more encouraging those in attendance to continue to be present throughout the rest of the process. “I always encourage you guys to show up and communicate every possible thought, even if you can’t be here. Feel free to email us. Our numbers and emails are available online, and it’s always good to hear from the community when it comes to things like this.”

Beca Welty is a staff writer and columnist for Watershed Voice.