As a newly elected city council member, one thing that has stood out during my first months in office has been the inherent nosiness of municipal politics. When someone comes before us or one of our committees with a project they would like to pursue, the questions they face aren’t always germane. Too often, a chief consideration seems to be whether people like whatever is being proposed.
“Does this fit with the character and nature of the neighborhood?” That’s a nice way of asking whether the neighbors will like it. My question has always been, why does the neighbor’s opinion matter?
An example of an issue which may come before our council in the near future is urban chicken coops. Our city of Albertville lays on the outskirts of the Twin Cities metro area in Minnesota. It’s a bedroom community surrounded by agricultural land, but close enough to “town” to be considered suburban. Our neighboring city of St. Michael will reportedly be asked to consider allowing chicken coops on residential lots. We may be next on the list. A local paper, North Wright County Today, opines:
“Well, I don’t want to be woken up at 5 a.m. sunrise by my neighbor’s backyard chicken,” you might say.
Well, don’t worry. Most ordinances already on the books – including those in Otsego and Minneapolis, for example – do not allow roosters. Only hens. And the most you’ll hear out of a hen is a startled cluck when your neighbor’s reaching in for the four eggs needed for his morning omelet.
“What about the smell from the chicken poo? Won’t that get bad?”
Probably not. The coops do need to be cleaned out, but local chicken owners can get a lot of help with some sawdust and a shovel. The rest is up to said chicken coop owner.
The principle I bring to bear in this and all issues is individual rights. To the extent we restrict any activity, whether the posting of signs, the playing of music, or the owning of chickens, we should do so only when it presents a clear violation of a neighbor’s right.
The difficulty comes in setting objective criteria by which to judge when a right would be violated. Am I entitled to live without certain sights and smells? Should my desire to not see or smell chickens overrule my neighbor’s desire to raise them? Either way, someone’s not going to get what they want.
Generally speaking, in my role on council, I favor the right of people to use their own property above neighbor’s objections to that use. A restriction should be based on a uniformly predictable scenario where a particular use will result in a quantifiable harm to others. “I don’t like that” doesn’t qualify as being harmed in my book.