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No action from Bremerton City Council? Chicken supporters may push measure to special election

Halfway to their goal of 2,500 signatures on a citizens’ initiative, Bremerton chicken activists are ramping up their efforts to pressure the City Council to legalize backyard hens in the city.

But with no movement in the City Council to revisit the issue, chicken champions are starting to set their sights on forcing a spring special election on the measure — a move that comes with a price tag the petitioners don’t want the city to pay.

“It appears that the Council isn’t going to budge,” said chicken proponent Patty Zwick, adding that volunteers will begin a door-to-door campaign to gather more signatures for their initiative. “The expectation of the Council is that we’re going to fizzle out and go away. I think that’s what they’re hoping.”

In April, a group of residents began collecting signatures for an ordinance that would allow people to keep up to four hens, after the City Council’s Public Safety, Parks and Planning Committee rejected the measure 2-1. The intention of the initiative is to pressure the City Council into passing its own law. But with enough signatures, it could be submitted to the Council for an up-or-down vote, or come to a citywide vote if rejected by the Council. In the three months of signature-gathering, members opposed to the measure haven’t changed their minds, but have also said they would be open to an election on the matter.

Chicken supporters predict they won’t gather enough signatures to put the measure on the November general election ballot, so as a last resort, they’re looking to put it on a special election ballot next year. Kitsap County Elections Manager Dolores Gilmore said that if the chicken measure stands alone in a spring special election, it will cost the city $70,000 to $80,000. If it waits until the Fall 2011 general election, the cost would be $3,000 to $5,000.

Council-man Jim McDonald, one of the two members who rejected the measure in March, said he was originally open to the idea, but has grown worried about enforcing potential disturbances backyard hens might impose on neighbors, such as noise and odor.

“If it’s a problem, the people that are just neighbors are just stuck with it,” he said, noting that Kitsap Humane Society animal enforcement officers are already stretched thin. “We can barely enforce a dog ordinance, let alone a chicken ordinance.”

He would, however, be more supportive if residents vote to support the chickens.

“If the citizens say, ‘We want a chicken ordinance and we’re willing to pay for it,’ I’m happy with that,” he said.

Councilman Cecil McConnell, the other “no" vote on the chicken measure, said voters should be the ones who determine whether to legalize chickens and not the Council.

“If the Council enacted the ordinance, then the people of Bremerton wouldn’t really get to have a say on it,” he said. “It shouldn’t be up to Council members whether people will have chickens next door.”

But Roy Runyon, the Council’s chicken advocate who voted “yes” on the ordinance, said it makes no sense for the Council to let the costs of a special election burden the city budget.

“It’s going to be expensive,” he said. “Is it fiscally responsible to allow this issue to go to a special election?”

Council President Nick Wofford said it’s up to Runyon, who introduced the measure, to address the concerns councilmembers had about the ordinance, such as the costs of enforcement.

“It’s not that we’re against it, it’s that we’ve all had some concerns and as presented, it wasn’t acceptable,” Wofford said.

Wofford hasn’t read the ordinance being circulated for signatures, but said that if the initiative has only garnered half the needed signatures in three months, there may not be much demand for urban chickens.

“There’s obviously not that much public outcry for chickens,” Wofford said. “I may be wrong, but I think they’re having some difficulties.”

Zwick, who has helped coordinate signature campaigns at the Bremerton Farmers Market and the Kitsap Harbor Festival, said about 90 percent of the people she talks to support the chicken measure.

Jon Teer, chief animal control officer at the Kitsap Humane Society, said that if a chicken measure were to pass in Bremerton, the Humane Society would likely need at least one more full-time employee to help enforce chicken-related complaints, which would cost about $45,000.

Humane Society Executive Director Sean Compton wrote in an e-mail that its enforcement is strapped for cash and only has enough money to address animal emergencies, let alone a new chicken ordinance. He added that chicken proponents need to think about how legalizing chickens might affect their neighborhoods.

“Our concern is that even proponents of poultry have not considered the impact on their own neighborhoods, or what it means for animals in the region facing immediate pain and suffering,” Compton wrote. “In the midst of a record season for homeless kittens and reports of animals trapped in hot vehicles, the Kitsap Humane Society welcomes input on how such a program could be successfully funded.”

Chicken advocates point out that Seattle, which allows at least three chickens per household, depending on the size of the lot, has received an average of five chicken-related complaints per year in the last eight years. Bellevue, which allows at least six chickens, has fielded about two complaints per year in the past 10 years. These numbers are partly why some chicken supporters believe the city’s resistance is rife with excuses.

Laura Moynihan, one of the coordinators of the chicken movement, said that if the Council continues to drag its feet on the issue, they’ll lose control of the ordinance when it comes to them with 2,500 signatures for an up-or-down vote.

“I’ve pretty much given up on any cooperation from the Council,” she said. “None of us wanted that, but that’s essentially the position the Council has pushed us into.”

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