Are backyard chickens legal? Depends. (John T. Greilick / The Detroit News)
Re: The Detroit News June 30 editorial, “Don’t revoke the rights of city farmers,” involving a Troy family raising chickens and ducks, misinterprets farming rights protected by the Michigan Right to Farm Act. The act applies only to the “commercial production of farm products.”
While the Michigan Court of Appeals has ruled that any selling of farm products for a profit constitutes “commercial production” (the selling of a tomato to a friend for $1, for example), it is questionable that the Legislature intended such a minimal standard or that it will be upheld by the Michigan Supreme Court.
Nonetheless, families raising chickens or ducks in their backyard need to engage in some form of commercial production to establish the right to farm under the act.
This raises the question of whether the act was intended to apply to new commercial farming operations in cities.
When the act was passed in 1981 it was intended to protect farmers in rural areas with existing commercial farming operations against urban sprawl. However, the express language of the act does not limit its application to rural areas. Thirty years ago there was very little interest in urban farming, as there is today, and it seems clear that the act was never intended by the legislature to limit the zoning power of cities to protect the health, safety and welfare of their residents against new commercial farming operations.
There is no argument with the parents’ viewpoint that “caring for their animals — feeding and growing, and harvesting their eggs — is a good way to teach their children where food comes from.” However, it is not necessary to have a flock of chickens or ducks to teach the lesson. A couple will do.
The issue that Troy, Detroit and cities around the country are facing is how best to allow for raising animals in a dense urban environment, so that the interest of neighbors are considered, as well, including their property values.
Where the raising of animals is permitted in cities in other states, it is regulated by zoning ordinances. No other state has a law mandating that new farming operations in cities are exempted from local zoning regulations.
Detroit’s new zoning ordnance permits the growing of crops and a regulation covering the raising of animals is in development.
Industrial and commercial land uses are all regulated by city zoning ordinances to promote the general public welfare and agriculture should be no exception. The establishment of land use rights for city residents can best be accomplished at the local level without the state forcing its will on neighborhood life.
John E. Mogk, professor of law,
Wayne Law School, Detroit