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Halifax's chicken keepers step into a legal void

Keeping hens supports local food sovereignty

by Jen Stotland

A legal review revealed that there is nothing to stop a person from keeping chickens in Peninsula Halifax. Photo Jen Stotland
A legal review revealed that there is nothing to stop a person from keeping chickens in Peninsula Halifax. Photo Jen Stotland

Louise Havanan is busier than ever advising a new set of aspiring urban chicken keepers. It all started when a legal team representing Halifax City Council reviewed the zoning bylaws in July of this year and found that bylaws for Halifax peninsula did not prohibit keeping hens. Bylaws in other districts have not been examined.

Havanan works as internal director at the Ecology Action Centre. She came to be known as spokeswoman for urban poultry in 2008 when the city of Halifax ordered her to remove her three hens from her Halifax West backyard

Havanan describes a legal vacuum in the city: "There are specific rules about what's allowed in land that's zoned as agricultural. In land that is zoned residential, there's this weird situation where there are no rules.”

When I asked Havanan about the possibility of keeping other small animals in Halifax city limits she says that according to the latest announcements there is simply nothing to enforce. All of peninsular Halifax falls under one zoning land-use bylaw, and this bylaw says nothing about agriculture. Some other regions have an agriculture sub-section but not this one.

There's no question that keeping hens fit into a larger context of local food sovereignty. As the monetary and ecological price of fossil fuels continues to rise, the movement to produce food locally is brought ever closer to home.

Even if most of our food was produced in the Annapolis Valley, we would still need trucks to bring it to Halifax, and our food system would still rely on expensive and problematic gasoline. True food security is achieved by having a system of "food-feet", where our nourishment comes from within walking distance.

Chickens also fit in a niche in small urban closed loop systems, turning potential insect problems such as slugs and fire ants into rich fertilizer.

The Facebook group Halifax Chickens lists other benefits: chickens produce fresh, healthy, delicious eggs, free of pesticides and antibiotics, eat table scraps and reduce municipal solid waste. What's more, they are educational - teaching children where our food comes from and teaching responsible pet ownership.

The moderator for Halifax Chickens is John Wimberly, who ran as a councillor in last year's municipal election for Peninsula West – Armdale. He's been keeping chickens for the past year, in what he described as "levelheaded civil disobedience" against a municipal policy that he calls wrongheaded.

Wimberly says, "I'd been involved in so much political activism that was heady and foundation building but not very fruitful. I wanted to get involved in something earthy and grounded".

By the end of that year Wimberly found his disobedience to be legal.

I was invited to visit Wimberly's coop and take pictures. Wimberly's chickens are not obvious from the front of his Maynard street duplex, and until you get up close to the coop they are undetectable.

His chickens enjoy being hand-fed, he said. They peck out of my hand and it feels like raindrops, or someone poking me with a straw. "They enjoy it," he tells me later, "They love getting any sort of attention".

According to Wimberly's estimate there are perhaps three chicken keepers in the Halifax peninsula and "dozens" in other more rural parts of HRM. Each of his five hens lays an egg a day, and he gives many away to neighbours and to people in politics. "They're the most wholesome bribe" he laughs.

Both Havanan and Wimberly agree that education is the first step toward a legal framework that supports urban agriculture best practices. "In legislation the main concern is people who screw up and how to deal with them. I think we can foster a more preventative approach," says Havanan.

During most media debate on keeping urban hens, Havanan says, most public concerns were about minimizing rodents and odours, and keeping the birds clean and disease-free and subject to a minimum standard of care. All these can be accounted for, she believes, through education.

Havanan considers that the best first step for those wanting to change practices in urban agriculture (or the lack thereof) is just to start keeping chickens. She hopes the EAC can become a resource.

Both Havanan and Wimberly see a role for an urban hen keeping society to monitor its own affairs before they become a problem. Further down the road she says it's important for the government to play a supporting role, such as in Victoria, a city with a municipal policy that actively supports local agriculture.

Besides a citizen-operated chicken keeping society, Wimberly has faith that provincial government can get involved. He says the provincial government has already shown willingness to step into municipal affairs, by stopping the rezoning of agricultural land to municipal land, and at least putting a temporary moratorium on the Otter Lake Solid Waste developments.

"The minister of Municipal Affairs could lift any unnecessary restrictions on urban food production without passing any laws."

Wimberly cites New York City's bylaw as particularly worthy of attention. All it says is that chickens cannot cause undue hindrance or restrictions to neighbours because of noise, odour or vermin, and that you are not allowed to mistreat the birds.

At this time chicken keeping is also not subject to regulation on sizes of coops, runs or properties or on distances of the coop from buildings.

This keeps hen-raising affordable for those who most need a cheap source of healthy protein, an important part of our food system rather than a luxury. The hens can be free-run, eggs could even be sold.

Even renters can keep hens on Halifax Peninsula. Wimberly rents, and had issues with his landlord before City legal representative Brendan Eliott's announcement.

Wimberly tells that those troubles have since ended: "if you live on the peninsula and if there's nothing in your lease preventing the raising of hens, your landlord has no legal recourse to stop you."


How can we reorient our lives to start supporting justice? How can we decouple from fossil fuels, and the pipelines, spills, fracking, global warming and human rights abuses associated with them? How can we end the oil addiction, re-localize production, create meaningful work and a truly lasting human ecology? In this column I hope to present solutions and create dialogue around permaculture. Feel free to ask your gardening and green living questions and I will answer.

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