Farm animals in Detroit spawn concerns
As a child, Diane Van Buren enjoyed annual summer trips to her aunt’s farm in the Thumb.
“I was a Detroit kid, but I loved the two weeks on the farm,” she said. “It was just heaven to be around all the animals.”
These days, Van Buren, 61, has a flock of chickens and ducks of her own in an upscale historic district on Detroit’s east side. Keeping livestock is illegal under city ordinance, but Van Buren is part of a work group trying to change that by researching a policy that would permit her and others to keep sheep, honeybees, chickens and other animals in urban areas. A proposal could be on the City Council table by early next year.
Van Buren’s neighbors generally don’t mind her chickens and even enjoy the eggs she shares. She wants others to understand the benefit of keeping animals within city limits.
“You can be an urban dweller and still provide some of your own food and be kind to the Earth,” Van Buren said. “There are a lot of other cities that allow it.”
An interest in urban livestock has been growing in Detroit in recent years, but some are worried about health implications, zoning allowances, animal care standards and oversight.
The debate picked up this month with public meetings on the east and west sides. The input sessions are the culmination of more than a year of research spearheaded by City Councilman James Tate and kick off efforts to craft a long-awaited urban livestock ordinance.
“There are a number of people who are interested in urban livestock or animal husbandry. We really want to have this conversation with the community,” Tate said. “There are some who are completely against it, and there are some on the fence, just trying to figure out how it’s going to impact their lives.”
Tate crafted an urban agriculture ordinance in his prior term that gained the support of his colleagues. He says he initiated talks about livestock legislation then and in his current term, because it’s known that there are residents in all parts of the city keeping farm animals.
Detroit may see a citywide proposal, or a small-scale livestock plan for designated zones. Officials expect that the draft legislation would be before the city’s Planning Commission by the beginning of next year and the council by February or March.
But some residents, like urban planner Khalil Ligon, are skeptical.
“There are some lagging response times just for public safety,” said Ligon, 37, who was among about 70 residents to take part in a recent community meeting at Perfecting Church. “The city may not have the capacity to properly enforce this ordinance, if it passed.”
The city convened a livestock work group more than a year ago to study local and national policies as well as zoning, animal control, regulation and care strategies for Detroit.
It’s now considering a law that would permit chickens, ducks, goats, rabbits, honeybees and sheep. The ordinance wouldn’t allow livestock to be kept as companion animals, like dogs and cats. Rather, keeping livestock would be classified as an accessory activity for grazing on vacant lots and producing eggs, meat, milk and honey.
The ordinance is expected to address permitting, euthanasia practices, noise and odor control, waste management and sheltering.
‘Urban livestock guild’
It also would call for the creation of an “urban livestock guild,” to ensure peer accountability and oversee training and management, identify inspection rules and engage the community.
City code prohibits livestock within city limits. Some residents caught violating the law have faced citations and had animals seized by Detroit Animal Control.
In June 2014, the city shut down an illegal goat farm initiated by the founder of a $6 billion hedge fund to tidy up an empty city-owned block in the Brightmoor neighborhood. The 18 goats had come from Idyll Farms in Northport, which is owned by Mark Spitznagel, president of Miami-based Universa Investments.
Using animals for lot grazing worries 24-year-old Kyara Yarber, who shared her concerns about animal welfare during the public meeting in east Detroit.
“... The vacant lots in the city aren’t known for their cleanliness and their safety,” she said, noting broken glass, trash and debris. “It doesn’t seem like that would be a good idea. It could compromise the organic state of the animal.”
The city has consulted with Michigan State University and the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development as well as the University of Detroit Mercy’s Detroit Collaborative Design Center. Detroit’s livestock work group also has researched ordinances from at least a dozen cities, including Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, and reviewed an analysis of other policies nationally.
Broad standards won’t likely be feasible for the city based on its varying neighborhood types, which range from single-family homes to blocks of vacant land and abandoned houses.
Tate said the challenges with animal husbandry regulations aren’t confined to just “should we or shouldn’t we.”
“It’s about where should it be allowed and who should be allowed to keep animals,” he said. “This is really new territory that we’re venturing into.”
According to a September memorandum from the council’s legal staff, an informational assessment of current practices revealed that most who keep animals in Detroit likely learned about care through YouTube and/or books.
State agriculture officials have been talking with Detroit about the concept for nearly a decade, says Jim Johnson, director of the environmental stewardship division for the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.
The scope of interest in small-scale livestock systems extends to cities including Flint, Grand Rapids and Fowlerville and far beyond Michigan, he said.
At the state level, an urban livestock work group met several times between September 2014 and February of this year and produced recommendations for raising livestock in urban and suburban areas.
“There’s a national movement right now toward local foods,” Johnson said. “There’s real interest here and real opportunity, quite frankly. Both for local people to have access to locally grown foods as well as people to begin startup businesses in that area.”
Mark Covington has lived on Georgia Street in Detroit’s City Airport neighborhood for his entire life.
A few years back, he got fed up with a handful of lots covered in garbage and began cleaning them up. The blight cleanup blossomed into an effort to maintain 13 vacant lots and a vegetable farm.
Covington’s Georgia Street Community Collective has become a neighborhood garden for educating and occupying youths. Since 2010, it’s been home to animals including chickens, ducks, honeybees and goats.
For Covington, it’s mostly educational. But his farm does process some chickens and has supplied milk and honey to a Detroit-based soap company.
An ordinance, he said, could allow his nonprofit to become more of an educational destination for area schools.
“We need to get to the kids in any way we can,” he said. “Not just teach them about growing their own food, but to teach them to be able to take care of stuff. Period.”
Tate says the city’s size and vacancy rate present an opportunity. Some people, he added, are looking for a rural lifestyle, but also want the amenities of being in a big city. The process, he said, could entail a pilot program on private or city property.
Agricultural consultant Leonard Pollara, who formerly operated a farm in New Jersey, assisted with the Brightmoor goat project and has purchased 20 lots in Detroit over the last two years.
Urban livestock, he said, would be a beneficial educational tool for Detroit youths and could create jobs. He’s open to assisting with an urban livestock pilot, an effort he expects will be needed over the course of several years.
“... Right now, Detroit represents probably the most remarkable and profound opportunity to recast the role of agriculture in an urban environment,” he said.