Should domestic chickens be allowed in the dense residential areas of Belfast? The City Council generally supported the idea when it came up for discussion July 6, but a lengthy discussion revealed some potential complications in the details.

A draft ordinance, prepared by City Planner Wayne Marshall after an earlier Council discussion of the topic, would have allowed up to six chickens in most of the residential areas inside the bypass. Marshall excluded the downtown commercial and waterfront districts and a special industrial zone pertaining to Mathews Brothers’ facility on Perkins Road because, he explained, these areas contain no single-family dwellings.

The Council unanimously supported six chickens and a one-time registration fee of $25. The in-town residential areas include a fair number of duplexes, mother-in-law apartments and multifamily dwellings, and Marshall asked the Council for direction on how to apply the ordinance to these.

The possibility of chicken-filled apartment buildings and coops abandoned by renters led the the Council to favor restricting the right to raise chickens to single-family homes, except, as Councilor Lewis Baker suggested, in cases where one of the units in a multifamily dwelling is occupied by the owner.

When Marshall raised the issue of permitting, suggesting that applications be reviewed by the planning office with the possibility of preconstruction site visits, Councilor Roger Lee questioned why chicken coops would require that level of oversight.

“An awful lot of construction goes on in this city without any permit because it’s not required,” he said. “Yet, if you want chickens, you’ve got to have the code enforcement officer come out there?”

Marshall said the potential nuisance and health issues put chicken coops in a different category than sheds, decks or other permits that might not warrant a visit from the CEO. But Lee questioned the cost to the city to “subsidize” what several other councilors referred to as the “hobby” of raising chickens.

Baker defended the idea of requiring site inspections, arguing that many services performed by the planning office don’t pay for themselves through fees, but larger projects throughout the year often make up the difference.

Marshall said the planning office doesn’t work on a “pay-as-you-go” system. “If that’s what the intent is, we are not covering expenses today.”

Other councilors expressed views supporting pre-construction site visits.

During a later discussion of the setback requirements for chicken coops, Councilor Mike Hurley addressed the difference between sheds and coops. “It’s not a garden shed,” he said. “It’s a thing full of chickens. And a thing full of chickens makes noise.”

The Council considered 10- or 15-foot setbacks and settled on the smaller number, with the idea that it would make more properties eligible. Marshall said the density of housing inside the bypass — the ordinance would affect around 800 properties, many of which are less than a half-acre — would inevitably create some cases where property owners would not be able to meet the setback requirements.

Chickens and other farm animals are currently allowed in unlimited numbers in the rural and agricultural zones outside the bypass, provided they are not raised for commercial use. The topic of allowing domestic chickens in the non-agricultural zones of Belfast arose partly in response to some illegal coops in town.

On Tuesday, Hurley asked if the city had received any complaints about these illegal chickens. Marshall said there had been three. One involved what Marshall described as a “free range” chicken at a property on High and Greene streets. Another was a complaint of a rooster crowing at dawn.

The third, Marshall said, involved a pig.

The Council approved a first reading of the proposed ordinance. A second reading and public hearing is scheduled for Tuesday, Aug. 3, at 7 p.m. in the Council chambers at City Hall.