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Chickens could be kept in every Wisconsin community under new bill

Local governments could still prohibit roosters and require that keepers of fowl have permits or notify their neighbors

Cage-free chickens walk in a fenced pasture.
In this Oct. 21, 2015, photo, cage-free chickens walk in a fenced pasture at an organic farm near Waukon, Iowa. Charlie Neibergall/AP Photo

Wisconsin legislators are looking to supersede a patchwork of local laws around owning backyard chickens.

Right now, municipalities decide their own rules. Madison allows flocks of up to eight hens, Appleton allows up to six. Residents of Green Bay, Kenosha, and Racine can have up to four.

But some jurisdictions ban the birds outright, while others have requirements for keeping chickens that leave some Wisconsinites frustrated.

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“It’s kind of piecemeal in that people are going from municipality to municipality and trying to get these ordinances passed,” said Republican Rep. Shae Sortwell, the bill’s author in the Assembly. “I believe that you have an inherent right to produce your food for yourself and your family.”

Sortwell said his intent is to establish a baseline statute that would allow up to four chickens on property zoned for residential use. The bill also applies to ducks, geese, quail or guinea fowl.

Under the bill, local governments would be allowed to prohibit roosters and require that keepers of fowl have permits or notify their neighbors. Municipalities could “impose reasonable regulations related to the location of fowl housing on a property.”

Emma Schmidt, 19, said she and her mother brought the issue to Sortwell’s attention at the Mishicot Pumpkin Fest.

Schmidt said she was wearing a Trump 2020 T-shirt and Sortwell handed her his business card.

Schmidt said she had hens when she lived in the village of Denmark in Brown County.

Now she lives in unincorporated Manitowoc County, and said she was sent to multiple governmental bodies before being told her third-of-an-acre lot was too small to keep chickens. The county allows five household livestock animals per acre.

“I have had chickens before in the past, and they’re pretty good at keeping the bugs down, keeping the weeds away, stuff like that,” Schmidt said. “Plus they’re just great to have around.”

Sortwell said his bill is a companion to another piece of legislation about the right to garden.

“There’s more and more interest among people to be able to have food that they produce on their own, whether from a security standpoint or a health standpoint, maybe just a flavor standpoint,” he said.

AmyRose Murphy expressed those same concerns. Murphy is a staffer for a Republican Assembly member. She said she has lived in West Allis for almost five years.

“We were house-hunting, and I would say about a third of the houses we looked at had chickens or even ducks,” Murphy said.

She expected to be able to have chickens when she purchased her home, only to find that West Allis prohibits them.

“We have a large family, and eggs are expensive,” Murphy said. “I want fresh eggs and I wanna know what the chickens are being fed. I wanna keep my family healthy.”

Sen. Lena Taylor, a Milwaukee Democrat, is the author of the bill in the Senate.

Sortwell said he hopes to find more bipartisan support, given that the state’s largest cities already allow for backyard chickens.

Murphy agreed.

“When it comes to chickens, it has nothing to do with parties,” she said. “I mean, food is food and everybody eats.”