Government misleads citizens about the law
Kelly and Shawn Bacher reside in the small Ontario town of Campbellford (population about 3,000), part of the municipality of Trent Hills. Shawn works in a salvaging business, tearing down old buildings. Kelly helps bring income into the household by providing housekeeping services to elderly neighbours.
Their daughter Kayla is 12 years old and has been homeschooled since 2008.
In 2009, Kelly decided that it would make a good educational project for Kayla to raise some chickens in their backyard. Both Kelly and Shawn were raised on farms and know how to look after chickens.
Kelly went to the Trent Hills municipal office and asked whether there was any law against keeping chickens in town. Three town employees gathered around, chatting with her and asking questions about home-schooling. They gave her a one-page list of prohibited animals. The list is headed “Schedule A – By-law 1998-6” so Kelly understood it to be an official document that correctly defined the municipality’s rules. It prohibits animals such as bears, kangaroos, hyenas, elephants, crocodiles, etc. It does not mention chickens. The town’s staff wished her well with her project, so she assumed everything was legal.
Relying upon that consultation, the Bachers constructed their backyard chicken coops (an open one for summer, a sheltered one with a heat lamp for winter), purchased feeding and watering equipment, and acquired 7 chicks. None of their immediate neighbours has any objection. In fact, some of the residents of a nearby seniors’ residence enjoy sitting out and watching the chickens in the summer. The Bachers now enjoy free-range eggs, and Kayla has learned about chickens and responsibility.
For reasons which remain a mystery to the Bachers, three residents of Campbellford complained to the municipality in 2011. All three complainants live several blocks away. So far as Shawn and Kelly have been able to determine, the complainants have never seen their backyard or their chickens. They can’t possibly hear or smell the chickens. Their complaints—for instance, that the chickens are too crowded—make absolutely no sense. Kelly compares her spacious coop to a luxury hotel for chickens, compared with the small spaces allotted to chickens by commercial growers.
The Bachers keep only hens, no roosters, so nobody gets awakened early in the morning by crowing. One of their immediate neighbours told them that she didn’t even know they had chickens until she read about it in the newspaper.
However, the town by-law officer responded to the complaint by informing the Bachers that their property was zoned residential, and that it was therefore illegal for them to be raising “livestock”—including chickens. Kelly explained that she never would have started the project if not for the assurance of town personnel that it would be legal. But the by-law officer said the chickens must go.
Kelly asked the town council to amend the by-law, pointing out that the nearby municipality of Quinte West (which Ontarians think of as Trenton) had recently done so. Even large cities like Vancouver have legalized backyard chickens, subject to some rules about the numbers of chickens residents can keep and where the coop has to be located.
The Bachers got plenty of support from their neighbourhood: nearly 200 people signed a petition in favour of changing the law. When the local newspaper conducted an opinion poll on the subject, 82 percent favoured legalizing backyard chicken ownership. But the town council refused to budge. The municipality won’t change the law, and has threatened to charge the Bachers with an offence unless they get rid of their chickens. Kelly and Shawn could face penalties as high as $25,000 each.
There are some large “factory farms” raising chickens not far from Campbellford. The Bachers can’t help but wonder whether these commercial enterprises might be influencing the town council or fomenting the complaints. Council members have made comments such as, “There are farms all around and all kinds of eggs.”
But the abundance or shortage of eggs in the neighbourhood is not the point. It’s the overabundance of laws that’s the problem here. The law has become so voluminous and convoluted that people can’t even rely on government employees to tell it to them straight. How can anyone be a law-abiding citizen when they can’t even find out what the law is?
Meanwhile, in a comical turn of events, a chicken belonging to someone else was found straying elsewhere in Trent Hills. Municipal officials, not knowing what to do with it, brought it to the Bachers to look after.
On February 3, 2012, the Bachers had another visit from bylaw officer Julie Reid, checking to see whether the chickens were still there. They are. So the Bachers are going to be charged, Ms. Reid said.
The charges against the Bachers were formally withdrawn in provincial court on June 14.
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