Backyard Chickens: Coming Soon to a Suburb Nearby?

Part of a series on local food and suburban farming.

Long Grove soon may become the first village in Lake County that allows its residents to keep chickens.  In McHenry County, the city of McHenry also is considering welcoming backyard hens.

This summer, the Crystal Lake City Council voted against chickens, but it was a close vote, decided by the city’s mayor.

Other suburbs that allow chickens include Evanston, Oak Park, St. Charles, Naperville and a few other west suburbs. In Wisconsin, Milwaukee and Madison residents can keep hens.

The city of Chicago always has allowed chickens.

“It’s almost backwards from what you would expect. You would think there would be chickens in the country and you would think as you get closer to the city, it would be more restrictive. But the city allows chickens; the country allows chickens; it’s the suburban belt that is all goofy,” said Ed Fuhrmann, who is leading a grassroots effort to change zoning in the Round Lake communities to allow backyard chickens.

Fuhrmann grew up on the North Side of Chicago where his family raised rabbits and a neighbor raised chickens. 

There are backyard chicken forums, blogs and Facebook pages dedicated to changing zoning laws regarding chickens. Some people who want to keep chickens don’t wait for the laws to change. There is an underground movement in the suburbs, in which people quietly keep chickens — as long as the neighbors don’t complain.

“There are folks in communities all over who have underground coops,” Fuhrmann said. He said he knows chicken keepers in Lake Forest and Grayslake.

Fuhrmann pointed out that chickens really are unobtrusive, much quieter than a barking dog.

John Emrich of Long Grove, a former investment manager, has watched the backyard chicken movement grow. Two years ago he started Backyard Chicken Run, a business that sells organic chicken feed and delivers it to the front doors of, primarily, Chicago chicken keepers. This spring, he decided to get his own chickens, at the urging of his 10-year-old son, after their pet Boxer died. A neighbor complained; which led Emrich to work with the village to amend its ordinance.

Long Grove planners voted in favor of the amendment, which will go to the village board for a vote in October. 

Fuhrmann said it’s usually a combination of factors that lead someone to delve into raising chickens. He said many chicken owners say they started raising chickens because of concerns over food safety, with recent recalls of eggs and other food products.

Like many chicken keepers, Adrian Plante’s interest in chickens grew out of his involvement in organic gardening. He got some chickens two years ago for his children and now is working with the city of McHenry to rewrite its ordinance to allow chickens. The city is expected to vote on the issue in October. Plante feels optimistic that the city of McHenry will amend its ordinance.

“I’m hoping McHenry will lead the way. They are very progressive with their thinking,” Plante said.

Chicken advocates believe that a vote for chickens in the north suburbs could be precedent-setting, opening the door for chickens in more communities.

In unincorporated areas of McHenry County, chickens are allowed in estate and agricultural zoning.

Darrell Moore, acting principal planner for McHenry County, said there hasn’t been an issue with people wanting chickens in residential areas, probably because there are ample opportunities in one-acre estate zoning.

Residents of unincorporated Lake County need at least five acres to keep chickens.

“We are getting calls from people saying ‘I want to keep chickens and have my own eggs so I know where my eggs come from,’ ” said David Husemoller, senior planner, planning and development department of Lake County.

Lake County is working on a Sustainable Building and Development Standards Report and will be drafting a Sustainability Plan. Local food will be addressed in the plan. Husemoller said the plan will make policy recommendations to the Lake County Board, which could include changes to zoning laws for backyard chickens as well as for beekeeping.

“Chickens are the next wave of the local food movement,” Emrich said. “Generally the people who get chickens are getting educated about where food comes from and they don’t like what they see.

Juliann Salinas September 30, 2011 at 01:35 PM
I'm thrilled to see that Lake and McHenry counties are working towards a resilient and sustainable future, particularly in regards to their food systems. I was extremely disappointed to see Crystal Lake vote down their progressive initiative on backyard chickens. Hopefully we'll see the next public land use allocation in Cary go towards developing a community garden instead of expanding a dog park (although it is a GREAT dog park, and I do love dogs)? Perhaps converting/cultivating some of the land at Maplewood and/or Prairie Hill next year? Maybe the USDA or other public funding agency could provide some community development monies for that purpose, thereby having these abandoned properties provide some value - both monetary and practical? Bees, chickens, veggies - all could be kept/grown there, with honey, eggs and produce sold at the local farmer's market. Classrooms could be used to for seminars/workshops on beekeeping, organic gardening and raising backyard chickens? With enough funding, employment opportunities could be developed for local residents to maintain the gardens as well. A girl's gotta dream. Thank you for developing this series. I look forward to reading the next installment.


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