Revelstoke cracks down on chicken coops during COVID-19 pandemic

Revelstoke residents trying to put food on the table during the pandemic have stepped forward with complaints of big fines, legal fights, and aggressive bylaw enforcement tactics against chicken coops.

File photo: Residents gather for a game of chicken bingo at the 2018 Revelstoke Garlic Festival. If the chicken poops on your square first, you win a prize. The game raised funds for the Revelstoke Local Food Initiative. Photo: Aaron Orlando/Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine file photo

When COVID-19 locked us down this spring, Jamie Kraus was one of many that went a bit ‘COVID crazy.’ While others spontaneously bought a year’s supply of canned beans, or acquired themselves a cute little puppy to fill the void of loneliness, Jamie got herself some chickens.

“I thought it would empower me and help me shift my focus,” the Revelstoke resident said. With no experience running a coop full of hens, it didn’t take long until she received a bylaw notice on her doorstep. 

First off, Kraus thought it was a nice courtesy to receive a chicken coop application alongside a warning saying she needed to move her chicken coop from the front to the backside of her property.

A slippery slope to court 

File photo: The view from the judge’s chair in the main courtroom at the Revelstoke Courthouse. Photo: Aaron Orlando/Revelstoke Mountaineer

Things started to feel a bit off when the animal bylaw officers showed up a day early to her scheduled inspection. “I don’t know if it was intimidation or an honest mistake,” she said. 

Kraus brushed it off and was happy she could now legally keep her hens. Right after receiving an email confirming her permit, she called the city to pay her $50 fee. 

Little did Kraus know that this process would go on for months, and eventually end up with a court date. 

The first time Kraus called the city they didn’t have her permit, and when they eventually did their opening hours had become highly reduced due to the COVID-19 lockdown. 

After playing “phone tag for over two months,” Kraus threw in the towel. She went to the bank and bought a check, followed by the office store to print a letter, and finally to the post office to ship it all off. 

Finally, Kraus could relax knowing she had it taken care of. But shortly after she received a $200 dollar ticket for not having a chicken coop permit. 

Frustrated, she sent a letter explaining how difficult it had been to pay the permit during the lockdown, with no online payment options. “I was told I was in the wrong, and if I wanted to dispute it, I had to take it to court,” Kraus said. 

In court, Jamie finally had the opportunity to tell her story. She said the judge told her the bylaw department’s job is compliance, and as Kraus never had any intentions of not following the rules, her ticket was withdrawn. 

What disappoints Kraus the most is how the bylaw officers’ have treated her. She points out how the public servants didn’t made eye contact with her when dropping off the ticket.

“You can talk to me, I am not a monster,” Kraus said. 

“They should give people space to follow the rules, not just slap us with outrageous fines. You have to treat humans like humans, we are all going through a tough time right now,” Kraus said. 

Not the only one  

Kraus is not the only one who’s gotten in trouble after becoming a chicken-mama during the pandemic. 

Kristina Metzlaff and Jennie Sosnowski-Deschamps are among the many chicken owners reporting a series of uncomfortable confrontations with the City of Revelstoke’s bylaw enforcement department this year. 

The animal control bylaw lists 17 requirements that must be fulfilled to legally own a chicken coop in Revelstoke’s residential area. 

What all these women have in common, however, is that none of them had any idea these laws even existed. 

Are you accusing me of lying?

What first started out as a small hobby to save money on eggs has spiraled out of control after a series of unfortunate interactions, landing Kristina Metzlaff with fines up to $2,800 dollars — a lot of scratch.

The chicken owner is now awaiting her court date for a chance to explain what really happened this summer.  

A mom stops to show her child the chickens at Bird Tree Farms in Southside. The owner of the chicken coops is facing thousands of dollars in fines from the City of Revelstoke’s bylaw enforcement department, but she has vowed to fight it in court. Photo: Aaron Orlando/Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine

On August 11, Kristina received a letter from city bylaw with a warning. There was nothing wrong with her coop, but if she didn’t get a permit by August 7, she would be fined $100. Confused, Metzlaff saw the letter was dated July 27. 

Two weeks later, Metzlaff’s neighbour saw two bylaw officers walking on her property and in her garden taking photos. “My first reaction was that this can’t be right,” Metzlaff says. 

Bylaw officers have to issue a warning within reasonable notice before entering private property. 

It didn’t end there. A couple of days later on a Sunday morning, two bylaw officers came up to Kristina’s porch. She was still in her pyjamas when the officers asked her why she had not paid her permit and ticket, and why she had removed her chickens in between their first and second inspection. 

Metzlaff had had enough. She had contacted the city regarding the late letter, and she had never moved her chickens.

“Are you accusing me of lying?” Kristina said. These words she would come to regret. 

The bylaw officers requested to see Metzlaff’s identification, which she didn’t give to them because they were not RCMP officers. Metzlaff said she was told by the officer that they would ticket and fine her, and left.

The badge of a bylaw enforcement animal control officer in Revelstoke. Photo: City of Revelstoke.

The bylaw officers ended up writing her two tickets for “hindering, delaying, or obstructing animal control officers.” Each ticket was for $1,000, Metzlaff says. 

Why two tickets you might think? One of the tickets was dated the day of their argument, while the other was dated August 10. “Apparently I was trying to obstruct them before I ever got the letter,” Metzlaff says. 

The fine with the challenged date has now been annulled, but Metzlaff is still going to court over the remaining $1,800. 

Metzlaff is frustrated over what she feels is a lack of professionalism by bylaw officers, and feels that cracking down on chickens, which provide food for residents, is waste of taxpayers’ money. “They bylaw officers were attempting to intimidate me. The problem is that I stood up for myself,” she said. 

“All my neighbours love my chickens, especially the families and kids,” Metzlaff smiles. 

I couldn’t pick just one

Chicken coops in Revelstoke have any regulations. Photo: The Brewers/Unsplash

When Jennie Sosnowski-Deschamps saw the empty shelves at the supermarket this spring she finally got some chickens. 

“I’ve always wanted to live a more self-sustainable life, and the pandemic made me feel the urgency for food security,” she says. 

Unaware of the limit of five hens per property, Jennie bought six. “Honestly, it never occurred to me you even had to register them, they are birds right? You don’t register your fish aquarium or a parrot. I couldn’t pick just one of them to give away,” she says.

During her chicken coop inspection, Jennie expressed her worry and she was in luck. Sosnowski-Deschamps property spreads across two lots, so the bylaw officer didn’t see a problem with the extra chicken. Relieved Jennie went out and bought another four hens, thinking she was allowed five per lot.

In October, the bylaw officers came around for another inspection and denied ever having allowed her more than five chickens. 

The proud chicken coop owner was given one week to re-home her the extra chickens. She thought this was unfair as there was no tangible complaint related to them. From an animal welfare point of view these chickens had just settled in with their flock for a long winter, Sosnowski-Deschamps says. 

Frustrated, she explains how five chickens simply do not provide enough eggs for a family of five and three dogs. For the first time in her life, she can finally eat eggs, as the ones from the store give her allergic reactions.

Jennie lucked out. Right before her chicken re-location deadline, a council meeting was held where they put a hold on all livestock claims. (For more, see below.)

“The world is pretty crazy right now, and having these little birds following you around the garden is a really nice reprieve,” Sosnowski-Deschamps said. 

Five chickens is not enough to produce enough eggs for a full family, Jennie Sosnowski-Deschamps says. Photo: Daniel Tuttle/Unsplash

Just a few of the many stories

Several individuals approached revelstokemountaineer.com over the summer with complaints. After speaking with those individuals, several others came forward with similar complaints about heavy-handed enforcement practices and steep fines. We have highlighted a few, but there are more.

We arranged a meeting to talk with a few chicken coop crackdown complaints, and several others showed up for that meeting. Each with a story to tell, some facing fines that could be devastating in challenging economic times.

Speak up!

Until five years ago, you technically weren’t allowed to keep any chickens in Revelstoke’s residential area. 

In 2015 Revelstoke’s Food Security Strategy highly recommended the animal bylaw allow chickens, as Revelstoke’s highest area of food security comes from backyard hens. A year later the new bylaw came about. 

“What’s interesting, was that 17% of our eggs were already coming from within the community before the new bylaw was in place. This bylaw was a great reaction to what the community was already starting to practice,” food security coordinator Melissa Hemphill said. 

Studying the bylaw’s quarterly summary from July to September in 2020 compared 2019, it looks like tickets have been burning hot in officers’ pockets. The category also includes issues with stray dogs and cats, so it’s unclear exactly how many more chicken related claims have been made.

City of Revelstoke bylaw’s quarterly summary from July to September 2020. Photo: City of Revelstoke

“For me, it’s a communication issue,” Hemphill says. She thinks it’s important for resources to be available informing locals of the bylaws surrounding food. 

The city has made a simple brochure explaining the chicken coop regulations, and in September the backyard chicken bylaw was highlighted as bylaw of the month. 

If you wish to have more than five chickens or other livestock you can apply to ‘rezone’ your property. “But it’s a challenging process where you have to fork out a couple of thousand dollars with no guarantees you’ll be successful. That can be quite an investment for people looking to produce their own food for economic reasons,” Hemphill says. 

Melissa Hemphill (centre) with the Revelstoke Local Food Initiative. Photo: Aaron Orlando/Revelstoke Mountaineer

She hopes the increasing crackdown of chicken coops won’t scare people away from getting hens in the first place. ”Keeping chickens can be a great way to connect to your food,” she says. 

The food security coordinator is currently working on Revelstoke’s Official Community Plan (OCP) update, and encourages people to “speak up” about what bylaws are not working for them. Hemphill says she’s “all ears” for changes people find necessary or helpful.

City council wrestles with chicken coop crackdown

At the October 27 council meeting, city councillors expressed residents’ concerns with the fines levied against residents with chicken coops, while the mayor, Gary Sulz, and Chief Administrative Officer, Dawn Low, defended city bylaw actions.

At the meeting, city councillor Jackie Rhind asked council to support having staff to look into the issue, presenting a verbal motion that called for changes to zoning and many other things.

Watch: City councillors raise concerns about city chicken coop enforcement actions. Th video is cued to the start of the discussion:

“I’ve heard a lot of community members just mention they are having issues with this problem,” Rhind said.

The city councillor explained how residents have tried to contact the city with their concerns and to get some bylaws amended, but without success. “So I thought it would make [the] most sense to actually have a motion that we can get behind and have staff allocate resources to put in the work to this important food security issue,” Rhind said.

The mayor downplayed complaints about bylaw enforcement issues. “What you’ve seen on social media may not be exactly what the issues are,” Sulz said. “It’s not exactly as cut and dried as this.”

It’s unclear what social media items the mayor was referring to.

Watch: The chicken coop discussion is interrupted by a break in the meeting. The discussion resumes here:

City of Revelstoke Chief Administrative Officer Dawn Low said she didn’t recommend moving ahead with a review of bylaws, and that the city couldn’t suspend fining people since the bylaw is already in place.

“What about the people who are complaining about the livestock in residential areas? What about those people? What about their voice?” Low asked.

In response, Rhind said she was advancing residents’ food security issues. “[They are] working with those community members. But are they working against them, or are they working to find ways to make it appropriate to have those food-generating animals in their life if it’s in the appropriate place?” Rhind asked.

Rhind is concerned about a lot of “good intentions” not resulting in any action. With residents facing “huge fines” Rhind strongly encourages the city to take action now. “At least put things on hold,” Rhind argued.

After a discussion later in the meeting, Low said existing tickets could not be waived, but bylaw enforcement can hold off on issuing new chicken coop tickets until the updated OCP is in place.

The item will be referred to the city’s Recovery Taskforce, a special committee formed to assist with COVID-19 recovery efforts. It is also expected that city staff will present a report related to the concerns, but there is no timeline on when that will be complete.

City declines opportunity to comment

We reached out to the City of Revelstoke for comment, but they declined the opportunity, denying there had been a chicken coop crackdown.

A spokesperson said the bylaw enforcement department had now shifted its attention to enforcing new COVID-19 rules announced by provincial authorities last week amid a surge in cases in B.C., giving that as a reason the bylaw department couldn’t respond. Senior city leadership declined the opportunity to comment.

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Did city bylaw crack down on your chicken coop this summer? Share your experiences in the comment section on this story below.

Sofie Hagland is the multimedia community journalist for Revelstoke Mountaineer. When Sofie is not skinning up a mountain or climbing up a rock, she is probably behind a camera looking for her next story. Do you have tips on Revelstoke news, outdoor life, or what's happening in the community? Contact Sofie at sofie@revelstokemountaineer.com or call/text 672-999-3616.