Cowley town council ponders animal ordinance

Christy Vaughn Miller wants her girls to be able to walk their sheep down Main Street in her community of Cowley. Although that may sound odd to someone from a bigger city, to the girls, it’s just part of raising sheep for their 4-H project. To Miller, it reflects a way of life, and one of the things that makes Cowley a desirable place to raise her children.

“It’s what makes Cowley unique,” explained Miller. “When my girls walk their animals, they purposely walk their sheep on Main Street, and at least once a week during the summer months they comment that tourists stop them and ask to take pictures of them and to pet their sheep.”

Dusty Miller and TaiLyn Miller take their 4-H lambs for a walk on a leash in the town of Cowley.

Miller and about 20 other livestock owners, who share her sentiments regarding the ownership of livestock within the town of Cowley, turned out on Tuesday night to discuss the Cowley Town Council’s proposed ordinance No. 285. The ordinance is packed with new rules that could potentially put a limit on the number of animals residents are allowed to keep in town and will regulate how those animals are kept.

The ordinance as it is currently written mandates how many animals, specifically cows, sheep, horses, ponies, mules, llamas and goats, can be kept in certain parts of town or “the animal control zone” as it is being called. It restricts the number of animals based on lot size and requires a special permit for more than four animals within “the zone.” It also offers a special temporary permit that allows residents to go over their limit for 21 days.

“There have been people in the past who want to get rid of livestock in this community, and that is not what this is about,” said Cowley’s mayor Joel Peterson. “This is about securing the opportunity to keep livestock without having any problems down the road.”

According to Peterson, the town does not currently have regulations regarding livestock in town, making it difficult for the council to address and mediate complaints. Other communities, like Lovell, have long banned keeping livestock within the limits of their town.

Peterson cited complaints as the reason for implementing the ordinance, but would not specify the names of those complaining, stating that he felt it would cause “division” within the community. He did indicate that the number of individuals complaining was “more than one but fewer than 50.”

About 20 people, who appeared to be mostly animal owners, attended the meeting, and those who spoke expressed their concerns about the ordinance. Some of the concerns were that the paperwork for permits would be cumbersome and time consuming, especially for parents who already are dealing with 4-H rules. Another complaint was that it would be difficult to track down owners of properties who live out of state to comply with the required notification process. Many expressed concern about the enforceability of new rules, citing other ordinances that are in place but are not enforced.

Some didn’t like the idea of neighbors making decisions for them about whether or not they could raise animals on their property. Some complained that the ordinance would allow new people moving into town to complain about animals that were living there before they moved to town. Many expressed their concern that it would take away part of the “unique” character of the town. And, some felt the boundaries designating the zone unfairly included some while excluding others. The zoning area as it is proposed includes certain properties but excludes other properties to allow the town to have a rodeo grounds, a place for kids to train their animals and for people who make a living off their livestock to continue to do so.

The ordinance has specific provisions to address the need for cleanliness, insect control, noise and fencing. For a small fee — $1 for fair animals and $5 for other animals – residents will be required to apply for a permit to own animals. The permit will require renewal on an annual basis and will be subject to a “comment period” that does not generate objections from neighbors. It can also be revoked or cancelled if the town council receives complaints that can prove the animal owner is not compliant with the law.

Complaints must be notarized and submitted in writing, at which time the town council will schedule a hearing about the complaint to determine “what will best serve and protect the public health and welfare of the town.”

Peterson suggested the ordinance had to “have teeth” to be enforceable. The sharpest of those “teeth” is a $750 penalty for every day that a violation of the ordinance continues.

“We’re not saying that every fly on your place has to be killed or dead and we’re not saying that an individual has to make sure that every speck of manure is cleaned up,” explained Peterson. “That’s not the issue. The issue is to just treat people like you would like to be treated. That’s what we’re looking for.”

The ordinance would allow residents to keep up to two animals on a 10,000 square foot lot, three on 19,000 and up to four on 38,000. To keep more than four animals, the permit would require an additional one and half acre for each animal.

Some complained that this rule was too general, saying that the law should also look at the size and needs of a particular type of animal.

“You can feed eight sheep in the same amount of space you can feed one horse in or one cow,” said Rosanna Rusch.

Another example given was that two draft horses would not have the same space needs required of two 40-pound goats.

Some longtime community members complained that it would impact a lifestyle that they have maintained in the community for many years.

“I’ve lived here for 32 years and it’s just been the last five years that I’ve even had neighbors, but I’ve had horses down there all my life and I don’t think there’s been a problem with my horses that I know of or have ever heard of,” said longtime Cowley resident Dean Carroll.

Some thought the ordinance was over-complicated and unnecessary.

“I don’t have animals but I have neighbors who have horses and have cows and I’ve had issues, but I’ve always been able to work it out because we have a great town here, where we have neighbors who can talk to each other and work things out,” said resident Wendy Fuller. “I have a real problem with this, I think it’s huge over-regulation. I think that we just don’t need it here. We are able to work things out and I don’t see a problem.”

Many who were involved with 4-H activities expressed their concern that it would over-burden parents with children involved in the program.

“I’m concerned that the amount of paperwork required to keep animals will discourage parents from having their kids participate in 4-H activities,” said Cindi Fannon.

“As a 4-H leader myself, I have major concerns. The $1 fee doesn’t bother me because everybody in this room probably has that in their pocket right now, but the hassle that it will take will deter them because they are already involved with a lot of 4-H requirements,” said Rusch. “Sometimes it’s the only thing kids have to do for the summer, and it’s sometimes the only opportunity they will have to learn from that experience.”

Peterson himself conceded that, “There’s nothing I like better than sitting on my porch in the summer and watching sheep drag kids down the street. I think that is what makes this town worth living in.”

As a direct result of the community input at the meeting, Councilman Dennis Woodward suggested a committee be formed of concerned community members with the purpose of refining the ordinance in a way that works best for the community. Fifteen members of the audience jumped at the opportunity to get involved in the decision-making process and signed up to be on the committee.

“We’re not trying to ram this down your throat. If you have a better solution, get together and make a solution and bring it to us so we can change this (the ordinance),” suggested Woodward. “We’re not writing this into concrete yet.”

The first meeting of the special committee will take place on Jan. 3 at 7 p.m. at the Cowley Town Hall. In the meantime, the ordinance was “tabled” pending comments and proposed solutions presented by community members.

“I want you to remember that this is a community, first and foremost, that everybody has to be a part of this,” said Peterson. “We want to make sure we are able to keep our animals, that’s a priority, but we want to do it the right way.”

A copy of the latest draft of the ordinance was distributed at the meeting and is available at Town Hall. Several town council members expressed an interest in working with the community to refine the ordinance before putting it in place.

“I don’t think it’s fair to suggest that anyone here wants to take away your rights to have animals. What we want is to make it so anybody can get along,” said Peterson, who also indicated that the ordinance needs to be in place by next summer.

By Patti Carpenter