Washougal should balance rural history, urban future in livestock debate

The recent livestock debate in Washougal — or the “pig and chicken fight” as we’ve been calling it at editorial meetings — is a classic tale of a once-rural town growing into its new urban limbs.

One resident moved his pigs and chickens into his backyard, which he was legally allowed to do since Washougal doesn’t have any livestock restrictions on the books, and neighbors not expecting (or wanting) to live next to an urban farm asked the city to intervene.

Washougal leaders haven’t had to face the issue before, since these problems usually resolved before it came to blows at a city council meeting, but they will likely get some sort of regulation into the books to help stave off similar problems in the future.

It’s no shock that Washougal is going through a few growing pains. After all, the city has nearly doubled its population in just two decades, and people looking for affordable housing in the Portland-Vancouver metro area are going to eye Washougal less as a rural outpost and more as a legitimate commuter option.

But arguments over urban livestock aren’t just confined to “cities formerly known as small towns,” like Washougal. This is an issue city councils in major cities have been dealing with for many years.

Some places much larger than Washougal have decided that allowing urban agriculture and livestock is beneficial to a city and to the immediate neighborhood.

Seattle officials, for example, decided nearly 10 years ago they would react to the question of livestock on urban parcels with a resounding, “Sure, why not?” Residents in Washington’s largest city can keep sheep, goats, cows and even horses, provided they have at least 10,000 square feet of land per animal.

Portland has more restrictive regulations, but still allows livestock in the city. Portlanders are allowed to have a total of three “farm animals” without a permit as long as those critters are confined to chickens, ducks, doves, pigeons, pygmy goats or rabbits.

And in the nation’s third-largest city, Chicago, residents have no restrictions in place to prevent them from keeping a dozen cows, 15 chickens and a couple llamas on their city lots.

While many folks think of the negatives of keeping urban livestock first — the smells, noise, rats attracted by the feed and the possibility of spreading contagious diseases — there are definite benefits of allowing restricted numbers and kinds of urban livestock within a city’s limits.

One benefit is the promotion of urban agriculture. As people begin to realize the devastating environmental ramifications of getting their food shipped in from all over the world — and from eating food grown in heavily fertilized, pesticide-laden fields or from animals pumped full of antibiotics and hormones — many are trying to “eat local” by supporting community gardens, buying fresh produce from local farmers markets and looking for locally raised meats, poultry and eggs.

Knowing that conventionally grown food travels an average of 1,500 miles between farm and plate in the United States, we should all be doing our part to encourage as much locally grown fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts and meats as our area can withstand.

That doesn’t mean that Washougal leaders should go full Chicago and let residents keep a menagerie in their backyards.

Instead, we would encourage city officials to review the array of regulations surrounding the issue of urban livestock. Some areas have incorporated permit fees to help cover the costs of responding to noise and odor complaints. Others, like Cleveland, Ohio, where residents must live on a half-acre lot to keep up to two goats, sheep or pigs, require certain square-footage per animal. And some cleverly tie animal care to the required permits: in Spokane, Washington, for instance, residents must obtain an animal-keeping certificate from Washington State University Extension.

And since we’re talking about the current argument brewing in Washougal (see “Backyard livestock has some crying fowl” in today’s Post-Record for more information), it should be noted that many areas do prohibit all swine except smaller, pot-bellied pigs.

Whatever type of urban livestock regulations Washougal leaders come up with, we would urge them to find a compromise between the city’s rural history and its urban future and to find a solution that, like Spokane’s law, remembers the well-being of the animals, not just the humans.

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