Council pulls its support for barnyard animals in city

CHESTER -- An attempt to allow horses inside Chester's city limits backfired on local leaders this week -- but they aren't shutting the barn door yet.

Opposition from residents fearful of having farm animals in their neighborhoods forced some Chester City Council members to pull their support for a measure letting horses, cows, mules and other livestock in some areas of the city.

Mayor Mitch Foster proposed the change in August after a resident told him about a problem she encountered trying to sell property on the fringe of the city limits. When a buyer asked if the city's zoning rules allowed horses, the landowner was stunned to learn they didn't.

City Council members also were shocked. Foster found other sites in the city that could be marketed to homebuyers who want to raise livestock and still get city services.

Suddenly, one person's problem became a marketing strategy. The City Council's first vote on the matter was unanimous. Foster touted the move as one that would not only entice niche homebuyers, but also add a bucolic touch to a city entryway.

To alleviate concerns about too many country critters in the city, safeguards were added to the ordinance, including a requirement that livestock lovers own at least 5 acres and contain each animal in a pen of at least 900 square feet.

But after The Herald reported on the first vote, some residents spoke out against the move, fearing a sudden influx of barnyard animals in city neighborhoods.

Councilwoman Linda Tinker, who supported the move initially but voted against it Monday, said her phone started ringing soon after word spread.

"I have to listen to the people that have been living here a long time," she said of changing her position.

Tinker said she was shocked to learn that 33 properties in the city contain at least 5 acres. She said her constituents are concerned about too much country coming to town.

"I wouldn't mind a horse downtown as much as I would pigs and a goat farm," she said.

Diane Simpson's family owns 9 acres within the city limits. Her property sits beside a 30-acre lot.

"I just want to protect my property values," she said. "I certainly don't want somebody to decide to put pigs or cows or goats on that lot. I just think it's totally inappropriate within the city limits."

After the ordinance was sent to the city's planning commission, the commission recommended changes including additional restrictions on the types of landowners who could have livestock and a limit of five animals per site, regardless of acreage.

In addition to those safeguards, Foster said people wanting animals would have had to get approval from a zoning board.

"Obviously, if somebody owned 5 acres and they were surrounded by 200 houses, their chances of getting animals would be slim," he said.

But residents such as Simpson, who spoke to the City Council Monday night, say they disagree.

"I believe that if you're in government, you have to be consistent," she said. "You can't say we're going to let this person have it, but we're not going to let this person have it. ... I really just think it's bad policy."

Leaders who initially supported the change balked during Monday night's vote.

Councilman George Caldwell said elected officials should listen to the public's concerns.

"Why do we want to open up Pandora's box?" he asked. The ordinance failed 5-4.

On Tuesday, Foster was already exploring other options. If he can't do anything else, he said, he'll develop an ordinance that would only allow horses on lots of at least 10 acres.

Some leaders who opposed the change said they are willing to compromise.

"It will definitely make a beautiful gateway into the city and that's what we want," said Tinker, whose Ward 3 includes the property that started the discussion. "But I don't want to jeopardize the people that live in the downtown area."

Councilwoman Annie Reid, who also represents Ward 3, said she also is willing to negotiate.

"I just think it's too broad the way it is," she said of the ordinance. "Ours is going to have to be really tight to keep people from abusing it."

Asked what she thought about the city allowing horses on 10-acre lots, Simpson was optimistic.

"That's a step in a positive direction," she said.