Matt and Alex McWilliams hope Minden Hills council doesn’t chicken out on their request to have a long-standing township bylaw revisited to allow them to have backyard chickens in their residentiallyzoned neighbourhood.

The McWilliams made a virtual presentation to the April 8 council meeting.

Matt McWilliams said they grow food, tap Maple trees, pick apples and have backyard chickens – all deemed in contravention of a 15-year-old bylaw that says farming must not occur on land designated residential.

He said the delegation wanted to clarify wording in the bylaw on what exactly constitutes farm land use.

He added he had more than 50 signatures of households in his neighbourhood overwhelmingly supporting the idea.

“What we wanted to address is that according to the zoning bylaw 06-10, farm use is not permitted in a residential zone. We’re in a residential zone but the definition of a farm is land used for the growing of crops, nursery or horticultural, raising of livestock, agri-forestry or maple syrup production.”

He said they had received a complaint that their land was being used as a farm due to their homesteading on their acre.

“In the trend of green and climate action, why wouldn’t the township be encouraging the growing of backyard food production, including and not limited to eggs from chickens, rather than discouraging food security in the wake of a pandemic?” he asked. He noted Ontario farmers have forecast upcoming food shortages that will hit later this year due to COVID.

In a time of environmental pressures and food insecurity, the McWilliams think residential zones shouldn’t have such high restrictions. They noted that Harvest Haliburton had identified the benefits of having backyard chickens for improving food security, environmental and health benefits and social well-being.

Alex McWilliams said reasons given against backyard chickens in residential areas include attracting predators. However, “there is zero evidence of this potential claim.” She said they had bears and foxes long before fencing the yard and introducing hens. Nor is there a smell, she added.

Dysart et al allows backyard chickens and Algonquin Highlands is looking into it, they said. Metropolitan areas such as Kingston, Kitchener, Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver have also recognized the benefit of this type of land use, noted the McWilliams. Matt McWiliams said it becomes an issue of discrimination.

“At the end of the day, we are two of thousands of up and comers that townships like Minden will be seeing trickle in more and more as the months progress. For people moving this far, urban farming is one of the biggest draws to such a quaint rural community. We hope we’re not forced out due to the unwillingness of recognizing the ever-changing landscape of the economy and food security rights. We hope the bylaw would be changed to allow growing of horticultural crops, agriforest, maple sap production and backyard chickens to be allowed in residential zones.”

Coun. Jean Neville, a self-described “poultry fancier,” said she had been fighting for changes during her entire time on council.

She said one of the issues cited is chickens spreading viruses to humans. “I have not yet known anybody to have caught a disease or died from a chicken.”

She added chickens, hens and the raising of chicks has proven to contribute to social well-being and decreasing anxiety during COVID. “They are the best mental therapy ever.” She added she lives in a residential area and people tap their Maple trees for home use.

Coun. Bob Carter said he was on the planning committee before becoming a councillor when the issue was put up for review, so it had been extensively reviewed in those 15 years. At the time, he said it was decided not to proceed.

“I don’t think we should just make changes because – even though it seems like the right thing to do – all changes have consequences so we should at least review the research that was done.”

Coun. Pam Sayne said she recalled the main reason a change was not made during the review was based on Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) input, and concern about viruses being spread to large chicken operations. She said she agreed with the McWilliams’ direction and politics, but wanted to check with OMAFRA.

Mayor Brent Devolin said the issue would be discussed along with other bylaws needing possible updating before the end of this term of council.

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