Detroit animal-keeping law finally in the pipeline

After 11 years of discussion, an ordinance is in the pipeline to allow Detroit residents to keep ducks, chickens, and honeybees.

As proposed, the ordinance spearheaded by Detroit City Council President Pro Tem James Tate, would allow for up to two honeybee hives and eight chickens and/or ducks for personal consumption or gifting per household. 

More than 100 people tuned in Thursday for a two-hour virtual meeting to educate residents about urban animal-keeping and answer questions about the proposed ordinance. The City Planning Commission is expected to host a Feb. 22 public hearing on the ordinance draft.

Tate, who also sponsored the city’s 2013 urban agriculture ordinance to permit urban farming in Detroit, said this proposal serves as a “bridge” to that law.

Mark Covington, founder of the Georgia Street Community Collective, began keeping chickens 14 years ago and bees 10 years ago. Credit: Mark Covington

“It didn’t make sense for residents not to be able to grow food in their own community without suffering potential penalty for it,” Tate told meeting attendees Thursday night,noting he’s been working on the animal-keeping ordinance for a decade. 

“It’s time for the city of Detroit to catch up with some of our other urban cities, neighbors around the country,” he said.

Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, Royal Oak, Ferndale, Troy, Warren, and Grand Rapids are among the Michigan cities with such ordinances. 

Keeping animals in Detroit would require a $50 license from Detroit’s Animal Care and Control department. Applicants with outstanding animal-keeping violations with the city or the 36th District Court won’t be eligible. 

Animal shelters, like a chicken hut, would be required to be at least 30 feet from neighbors and if there is no alley, at least five feet from a neighbor’s property line. 

Animal keeping would only be allowed as an accessory use to a house, urban garden, school, or restaurant. There would be an annual $50 renewal fee for license holders. Detroit Animal Care and Control would have inspection authority to ensure compliance. 

Animals that would not be allowed under the ordinance include: Roosters, pigs, goats, sheep, cows, horses, turkeys, and rabbits. 

The ordinance needs to be passed by City Council and will not go on a ballot, Tate said. Some residents expressed opposition on Thursday’s call, saying residents should be able to vote on it. 

Tate’s office hosted the meeting, which included a panel of local urban farmers and city officials. Attendees were each given a minute to ask questions and/or give comments and were split over the proposal.

“I am totally against this,” said Southwest Detroit resident Theresa Landrum. “You came to District 6…and we overwhelmingly told you ‘no.’”

Landrum said the ordinance should go on the ballot, that the 30-foot setback wasn’t enough and expressed concerns about the human health implications of urban livestock.

Multiple residents also raised concerns about the existing issue of the safety issue of stray dogs. The discussion comes just days after a Detroit man died following an attack by three dogs.

Officials on the call emphasized that chickens, ducks, and honeybees don’t pose the same physical safety threat as dogs. 

“I’m less concerned about any kind of danger of chickens getting out and running amok and terrorizing the people in a community,” said Lori Sowle, Detroit’s animal control manager. 

Sowle said her office does enforce current animal restrictions when complaints are made and would continue to do so if the ordinance is passed. Between 2020 and 2023 Animal Care and Control issued 34 citations for urban livestock, accounting for less than 1% of all animal-related citations, according to city documents. 

Sowle said she is in support of the ordinance because it would contribute to the health of the community and future generations understanding how to feed themselves. 

“Yes, we have a lot of dog issues and we’re focusing on those,” said Sowle, noting that her office took in over 8,300 dogs last year and responded to more than 21,000 calls. “But that should not impact the way that folks out there feel about the way this program could be run.”

Detroit city planner Kimani Jeffrey said the Detroit Food Policy Council will convene an animal-keeping guild to train and educate the community about the ordinance and hold peer animal keepers accountable, calling it “a support community so that all of the responsibility doesn’t fall on the city.” He said details on forming the guild aren’t yet solidified.

People interested in joining the guild are encouraged to contact Tate’s office at [email protected]

Multiple people said they want reassurance that the animals won’t pass diseases on to residents. 

Scott Whittington with the Detroit Health Department said salmonella would be the main potential health concern with chickens and that the department would monitor cases in the event the ordinance passes. 

“I have not seen any studies that show a significant correlation between the domestic chickens in small flocks and significant increase in salmonella,” said Whittington. “As part of the health department’s surveillance, we certainly would be looking to see if the rate of salmonella goes up or down in any given year.”

For larger urban gardens and farms, Tate’s office is considering increasing the number of animals to 12 chickens and/or ducks and four honey bee hives. 

The proposal allows for up to two honeybee hives and eight chickens and/or ducks for personal consumption or gifting per household.  Credit: Mark Covington

Many Detroit urban farmers expressed support for the ordinance. Tate’s office had commercial urban farmer Mark Covington, Detroit resident and animal keeper Tiffany Pilson, and the city’s first director of urban agriculture, Tepfirah Rushdan on the call to discuss their experiences with animal keeping in the city.  

Still, some, including Timothy Paule, co-founder of nonprofit urban Bee farm Detroit Hives, said the limit of two honeybee hives per household is too restrictive and doesn’t want honeybees in the ordinance at all.

“For over eight years, Detroit Hives – a Spirit of Detroit awardee – along with many Detroit residents, has successfully demonstrated how to keep bees. As it stands, beekeeping in Detroit is not a nuisance, nor a land use issue,” he said. “If something’s not broken, why fix it?” 

Multiple residents said Tate’s office should be doing more to educate residents about the proposed ordinance and felt it was sprung on them. 

“I’m from 48217, and you know District 6 – out here, we’re not for the chickens,” said Loretta Cannon, adding she felt it was forced on residents. “This is the city. Our family has moved up here from the country to the city. I don’t want chickens running around here and near me.” 

Officials on the call noted Tate has been doing outreach and working on an ordinance for years. 

“This has been in the works for a while and it’s definitely well thought out,” said Amy Kuras, research and policy program manager at the Detroit Food Policy Council.

Meeting panelists and officials said they don’t anticipate a huge surge in chickens, ducks, and honeybees if the ordinance passes, given many people interested in animal keeping are already doing so. There’s also the cost and effort associated with animal-keeping.

Covington, who started keeping chickens 14 years ago and bees 10 years ago, said starting just one beehive can “easily” cost $500. Providing shelter and feed for chickens can be just as expensive, he said. 

“I don’t believe we’re going to see this influx of people running out getting chickens,” he said. 

“If you’re not seeing chickens now, you’re probably not gonna see chickens when the ordinance passes.” 

Tate said more community conversations would be held on the proposal. 

“Those who support, those who are questioning, those who are against, every voice counts, and we want to make sure that we keep the avenue of communication open,” he said, noting that he was strongly in support of the ordinance. “I’m working to get my colleagues to support it as well.” 

The ordinance will be discussed on Feb. 22 at the Detroit City Planning Commission’s in person meeting on the 13th Floor of the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center, 2 Woodward Avenue. The Feb. 22 hearing is expected to start at 6:15 p.m. The meeting can also be attended virtually.

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