Thursday, July 18, 2024
July 18, 2024

Opinion: More Than Just Ruffled Feathers

By ELSIE BORN

In the past couple years there has been a lot of crowing on this island about the so-called “rooster wars,” with the majority of this community laughing at the issue and rolling their eyes.

Must be nice when the biggest problem you face is a couple roosters, right?

While calling something a silly name might make for an attention-grabbing headline, it also minimizes the seriousness of the situation and frames the people involved as insignificant. 

This isn’t about the benefits of roosters — the pros and cons have been written about far and wide, both on this island as well as by agriculture and food security experts. The issue has evolved into a widespread one about what you can and cannot do with property you bought, according to the zoning laws governing that property. The issue should really be framed as “Should the CRD be allowed to strong-arm you, even though what you’re doing is legal?” Makes for a less catchy headline but it’s also something this community would likely understand and empathize with better.

The situation is frustrating all around. Rooster owners are frustrated that they bought property where farming is allowed, and confirmed this by checking with the Islands Trust prior to purchase. They’re frustrated that they’ve done everything in their power to minimize noise by spending thousands of dollars (and hours!) moving coops, soundproofing, switching noisier roosters for quieter ones, and it’s still not enough.

Their neighbours are frustrated because they feel their lives have been turned upside down by early morning rooster noises with no end in sight. They’ve made it their mission in life to get rid of those roosters, dedicating a significant amount of their time to recording rooster noises (at least 52 from one neighbour alone so far) and calling the CRD with noise complaints every chance they get.

And the CRD is frustrated because they’re being called repetitively to the same property over and over again with the same complaint. They want this issue to end, full stop, and no matter the cost. To make this happen they’ve issued ticket after ticket to some families, and have been bringing officers over from Victoria to deal with these complaints.

The frustration has leaked from a neighbourhood spat to the poultry community at large — with legal ramifications beyond Salt Spring that will impact small-scale farming and food security for decades to come. 

Last year the CRD allowed a different Salt Spring farmer to dispute their rooster noise tickets. When the case was brought before the court, the judge threw out the tickets and warned the CRD to tread carefully as they were on a slippery slope of infringing on the farmers’ rights. The farming family at the centre of this current storm hasn’t been afforded the same due process. The CRD has instead served them and summoned them to court, without the option to dispute. The court case brings with it a scary outcome: upwards of $10,000 in fines as well as a precedent-setting abuse of power that could end small-scale farming across the Southern Gulf Islands, should your neighbour not like what you are doing. 

In a phone call last week the bylaw officer said that, unless farms are on ALR (agricultural land reserve) land, they could be subject to noise complaints by neighbours and face fines. To put that into perspective, a quarter of all of Salt Spring Island’s farms are not on ALR land. That means that, if the CRD wins this case, they can strip 25 per cent of all farms of their ability to breed chickens in a self-sufficient manner, as well as greatly reduce their capacity to sell eggs, as roosters are a necessary tool to keep a flock healthy and protected. 

To be clear, the neighbours are not suing this family over their roosters. This case is being brought against this farming family by the CRD. The CRD are acting like schoolyard bullies because they want this issue to go away, no matter the expense — and no one else is willing to get involved. 

The CRD lawyers have instructed Local Community Commission members to not speak about this issue in any manner or take any action until the case is wrapped up in court. The Islands Trust has no jurisdiction over bylaws. At every turn the CRD has been silencing (quite literally in the case of the roosters involved!) the agricultural community on this island, leaving nowhere to turn and no course of action to take. 

When someone buys a piece of land with the dream to farm, raise livestock and contribute to their community in a meaningful way — arguably the most meaningful way, by providing fresh, local, healthy food — they don’t do so lightly. Small-scale farming is not a short-term dream, and it’s certainly not a financially rewarding one. Many of the farms that will potentially be impacted, if not completely shuttered, by the outcome of this court case have been feeding this community for decades. Small-scale poultry farms have already been closing due to skyrocketing feed prices, avian flu and more. Not only do these farmers feed our local community, but tourists flock to the Southern Gulf Islands for farm tours, farm stands and locally produced food. Why would anyone interested in starting a small-scale poultry farm come to the Gulf Islands with this level of oppression by the CRD and muddy, contradicting bylaws? 

At this point, the CRD has made it impossible for any action to be taken until the current case is concluded in court. Realizing the gravity of the situation should this case be won by the CRD, this farming family is desperately looking for legal counsel. They have been quoted a $25,000 retainer, which is far beyond their ability to afford.

If you would like to help this family in our farming community, a GoFundMe campaign, “Funds needed for legal defense of farmers rights,” has been created to help them pay for legal services, and any donation is appreciated more than you could know. A Change.org petition has also been started with almost 1,000 signatures; please consider signing “Protect Food Security in the Southern Gulf Islands — Stop the CRD crackdown on Roosters.” The Salt Spring Island Poultry Club is also helping with fundraising for this family and is donating $5,000 of their funds. 

The above piece was written and submitted on behalf of the Salt Spring Island Poultry Club and edited by Serene Giles.

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