Government & Politics

Overland Park allows boy with autism to keep his backyard chickens

File photo

Overland Park is allowing a child who has autism keep his pet chickens.

When a disgruntled neighbor called the city to complain about a barbed wire fence that the Bell family temporarily put up at their home near 191st Street and Antioch Road, a code enforcement officer sent there to investigate the fence incidentally discovered six hens living in their yard.

The city’s Unified Development Ordinance considers chickens to be farm animals, and a special use permit is required for the keeping of farm animals on a lot or tract of less than three acres in size.

The family said they did not know about the ordinance, and so they didn’t have a special use permit.

The city council granted them one at its meeting Monday evening in a close vote of 7 to 5.

It was Matt Bell’s reason to have the chickens that tugged at the council members’ heartstrings.

He told the council that his 10-year-old son, Tyler, has autism and gets easily overwhelmed. Also, he’s sensitive to the sun, causing him to avoid the outdoors.

But the chickens have brought the young boy out of his shell, especially one gentle hen in particular named Rocky.

Disabled and unable to walk properly, Rocky the hen has a sweet disposition and requires at least two other chickens to protect her from predators.

“Tyler goes outside for the chickens because he enjoys running around with them and he loves petting Rocky,” Bell said. “If he loses these chickens, he’ll be devastated. Especially Rocky, because they’re inseparable.”

Bell told the council that his family lives in a very rural part of the city that was annexed from Stilwell just three years ago.

The family’s six hens don’t make much noise and cannot leave the fenced-in yard.

The family had originally lived on a five-acre lot in Paola but relocated to Overland Park to be closer to a special private school for Tyler.

Several council members were touched by Bell’s story.

“There are many people who want to have chickens to be urban farmers even though they know nothing about chickens,” said Councilman Fred Spears. “That doesn’t carry a lot of weight with me. But this is different because I can see these chickens are being used as an educational tool.”

Councilman Dan Stock agreed.

“Every time chickens have been put in front of us, I voted against it and I was prepared to do the same today,” he said. “But that area is fairly rural. There is plenty of space for those chickens.”

Some council members were not swayed, however.

“I think the expectation of anyone who moves into Overland Park is that farm animals are not allowed in our neighborhoods,” said Councilman Richard Collins. “If you want to see how chickens are raised — or any farm animal, like sheep or cows — visit Deanna Rose Farmstead. If you want farm fresh eggs, go to the farmer’s market.”

Councilman David White echoed that sentiment.

He also said he was disappointed the Bell family — and others who might illegally have chickens in the city — didn’t research the chicken ordinance in advance before establishing residency.

Councilman Dave Janson told the council that he worried approving the special use permit would start a domino effect, with other people living on more than one-acre of land, even in the north part of the city, asking for chickens as well.

But in the end, the chickens won.

Since 2004, this is only the second time a special use permit for chickens has been approved by the council.

Jennifer Bhargava: