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Stalemate over chicken-raising continues in EC

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Johnnie Walton

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Friday, January 18, 2019

The stalemate over chicken-raising in Elizabeth City continued this week, as city councilors again deadlocked on the issue, failing even to agree whether they should stop talking about it.

Council’s 4-4 vote Monday to prevent reintroduction of the chicken-raising issue for six months was broken by Mayor Bettie Parker. However, the issue remained undecided because it was later determined that council needed a two-thirds majority vote to stop its reintroduction.

Prior to that vote, council failed, also by a 4-4 vote, to advance Councilor Johnnie Walton’s proposal to impose an outright ban on the raising of chickens in the city.

Voting for the ban were Walton and Councilors Anita Hummer, Rickey King and Gabriel Adkins. Voting against the ban were Councilors Jeannie Young, Darius Horton, Billy Caudle and Kem Spence. Parker declined to break that tie.

Both deadlocked votes followed a similar 4-4 vote last month on limiting chickens to eight per property, and numerous debates on the issue at council meetings since last summer.

The debate started in July, in response to a city resident, Sharon Wilson, who complained her neighbors let their chickens create an unbearable stench and asked for council action. Wilson has favored banning chickens outright, but only half of City Council has supported that.

The other councilors, including Young and Spence, have supported limiting how many chickens can be raised, arguing that is fairer to other city residents who raise chickens with little or no issue. The city’s current ordinance allows a person to raise any number of chickens, so long as they ensure sanitary conditions.

After last month’s deadlock, Hummer asked that council discuss chickens again, City Manager Rich Olson reported. Rather than ask for a ban, however, she requested council look at new requirements for pens’ cleanliness.

The current city ordinance requires chickens’ dung, waste and litter be cleaned up at least every two days. A draft ordinance would also require leftover food be cleaned up that often. With stricter cleaning requirements, the draft ordinance would also allow chicken owners up to two days between applying insecticide, disinfectant and deodorant, rather than having to do it daily.

Walton argued new sanitation requirements weren’t good enough, however. He said chickens can cause a health issue, and, referring to Wilson, said her neighbors’ chickens are causing her problems. Wilson has said the chickens cause such a bad smell she can’t enjoy her home; she’s entitled to be comfortable at her home, Walton noted.

Wilson’s neighbors, Sheri and Ed Power, have several times denied Wilson’s claim that their chickens aren’t kept in good conditions. Each side has accused the other of pursuing a personal vendetta.

Walton also argued the proposed sanitation requirements would be time-consuming to enforce. He asked Olson if he had the staffing to constantly check the cleanliness of chicken coops.

Olson estimated a dozen families in the city raise chickens. He also said the city relies on citizens’ complaints to find and fix unsanitary conditions.

In a followup interview Wednesday, Olson said the city’s code enforcers do followup checks to make sure code violations are fixed, but said the city doesn’t have the staffing to do constant inspections.

Walton’s motion to ban the raising of chickens in the city limits was seconded by Hummer. However, the council split 4-4, and Parker chose not to break the tie.

Following that vote, Horton, Adkins and King all called for putting the issue to rest. Horton motioned that council block reintroduction of the chicken-raising discussion for six months. Spence seconded the motion.

That vote also ended with a 4-4 tie, but Parker chose to break it in Horton’s favor. She reiterated she wanted councilors to decide the issue, and reasoned “maybe you do need six months” to find a consensus.

Horton’s motion was later determined to have failed, however.

According to council’s rules and procedures, a motion to prevent reintroduction of an item requires a vote “equal to two-thirds of the actual members of the council, excluding the mayor and vacant seats.” That means the motion needed six councilors voting in the affirmative to pass.

City Attorney Bill Morgan did not advise the council of that Monday. Olson confirmed Wednesday that the two-thirds vote was required.

Current members of council aren’t the only ones tired of the city’s chicken debate. During Monday’s public comment period, former councilor Michael Brooks called for councilors to focus on reducing unemployment and helping city residents affected by the partial shutdown of the federal government.

“When I was on council, we talked about Elizabeth City being a Coast Guard City, and, here we are, government shut down, Coast Guard and military’s not getting a paycheck, and we’re talking about chickens,” Brooks said. “We need to start putting people in front of chickens.”

Olson and city staff have offered some help to families affected by the shutdown, primarily offering extensions on utility bills. Discussing the shutdown Monday, Walton also called for City Council to be more involved in helping affected residents. Among the federal agencies affected by the shutdown is the U.S. Department of Homeland Security which oversees the U.S. Coast Guard.

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