Council eyes idea of raising MLT poultry limits, will consider updating utility discount program at Feb. 16 meeting

Mountlake Terrace Planning Commissioner Sarah Bennett, bottom row-far right, speaks during Thursday’s city council work/study session.

The Mountlake Terrace City Council at its Feb. 11 work/study session talked about possibly increasing the number of poultry allowed at single-family residences and updating the income thresholds for utility discounts available to low-income senior and disabled citizens. Councilmembers also heard a review of the city Planning Commission’s accomplishments from last year and what is anticipated for the commission’s 2021 work program.

At the start of the meeting, attendees observed a moment of silence in honor of Alice Kier, a former long-time Planning Commissioner and community volunteer who died Feb. 8 at age 79. City Clerk Virginia Clough presented a slide show highlighting Kier’s years of service and her commitment to pushing for civic development projects that have mostly come to fruition, such as revitalizing Main Street and building a new city hall, set to be completed next month. “We all just loved her so very much,” Clough said.

Councilmember Laura Sonmore described Kier as “a loyal and faithful volunteer and friend to the city” who was “always somebody to be reckoned with.” Added Sonmore: “Alice, you are truly missed, and we thank you from the bottom of our hearts that you served the City of Mountlake Terrace.”

Planning Commission Chair Nick Bautista said that over the course of many years working with Kier, he had looked to her for guidance on how to be a responsible commission leader and speak up for what the commission determined to be in the city’s best interests. “The 16 years I had watching her lead the planning commission and guide the city to the future were invaluable,” he said. “And I can only hope I can do her justice by carrying the torch forward.”

Councilmembers heard from planning commissioners that despite challenges associated with COVID-19, they were able to accomplish a lot last year. Bautista highlighted construction and development code amendments, temporary outdoor use permits for restaurants during the pandemic, and a review of the Transportation Master Plan and several townhome projects. The latter work, he said, kept thc commission particularly busy. “I would say probably more units in one year than I can remember handling at any one time in terms of townhomes,” he said.

Projects the planning commission has identified in a draft work plan for this year include preparation of an affordable housing plan, tree preservation throughout the city, and zoning and development code updates.

Planning Commissioner Doug Hoffman emphasized he would like to see adjustments to city tree ordinances because “there is no upside to the loss of urban forests,” and maintaining them will provide measurable economic and community benefits. “We are losing our majestic, mature canopy and this has a multitude of adverse effects,” Hoffman said.

Commission members present also said they looked forward to continued teamwork with the council on development and sustaining an overall vision of what the city should be and what it should consider when making changes.

Planning Commissioner Sarah Bennett expressed concern about “a shocking lack of diversity” in the types of residential developments recently approved in the city. She said she is not only committed to growing the city’s population, but also addressing “what is a regional trend of just very high-dollar properties,” which she felt was happening unabated locally. During the coming year, Bennett said she is “committed that we have mechanisms in the city to entice kind of a diversity and ensure more attainable housing.”

The commission and city council agreed they would prioritize both work that they would like to accomplish with work they are legally obligated to complete — such as updating the city’s Comprehensive Plan as well as fire and building codes to comply with updated state regulations.

In other business, the council discussed the possibility of allowing more chickens and ducks on single-family properties. It had previously received a request via a letter signed last September by several residents, who outlined the benefits they perceived from changing the current maximum allowance.

Municipal code limits the number of small domestic animals, such as dogs, cats, hens and ducks, to no more than three on a single-family property. It also describes the appropriate care and environment necessary to minimize nuisances to neighbors and provide suitable conditions for the animals.

The request asked for the city to consider raising the allowance of flocks to eight, which the residents wrote “better reflects the needs of a modern poultry keeper.”

Reasons cited for increasing the hen limit per household include more home-raised eggs can help combat food insecurity, chickens help the environment by providing organic fertilizer, pest and weed control, and since poultry are flock animals their welfare, which depends on coexistence with others, would also be improved from being in larger groups.

In addition, they contend the average lot size in Mountlake Terrace is large enough to support increased flock sizes and that the current code is out of step with nearby cities, which allow for six to eight hens.

Police Chief Pete Caw said it’s important to consider all sides in any discussion and that while the benefits of the suggestions put forward in the request would seem to be apparent, he also wanted the council to consider “a couple of issues that we have with poultry within the city. Two examples of complaints that we normally receive are noise and odor.”

Noise complaints are usually due to roosters. While not allowed by city code, Caw said they are typically unintentionally added to flocks because people purchase young chicks at a stage when roosters can be tough to distinguish from hens. People can become emotionally attached to the birds before discovering they are males and then not want to get rid of or know what to do with them. “It’s not an unmanageable concern,” he said, but rather something to think about “when you start increasing your flock.”

Odor complaints normally stem from the coops themselves, which “are sometimes difficult to police or regulate for lack of a better word,” Caw said. This is because the enclosures are usually located in backyards not visible from the street, which makes monitoring their conditions, flock sizes and care difficult.

The police chief also warned that some people, by nature, will exceed the limits of what is allowed. Caw said there had been several such situations in the city and so, “as we increase numbers, we can expect people to do that.” Most people are responsible, he said, but there are those “that are going to fudge the numbers and have more, so that’s a concern.”

In addition, Caw said most neighboring cities that allow residents to have increased numbers of poultry typically require larger lot sizes of 10,000 square feet or more — and such properties are not common in Mountlake Terrace. He noted that many of the city’s recent developments have “very, very small lot sizes,” which would be problematic for increased poultry, their associated noise and complaints.

Councilmembers talked for more than a half hour about possibly raising the limit and generally seemed amenable to the idea. They also wanted to more thoroughly examine the issue by hearing from the community about perceived benefits and concerns. Based on Thursday night’s discussion, the city is asking for feedback from residents and businesses who own chickens, live near them, or would like to provide comments. Email your thoughts to cityhall@mltwa.gov. The council is tentatively set to discuss the issue again on Thursday, March 11 at 7 p.m.

Finally, following a resident’s request and initial conversations last fall, the city may soon be adjusting its income thresholds necessary for water and sewer utility discounts made available to low-income senior and disabled citizens. An update of the program will be put to a vote at next week’s Feb. 16 business meeting. The proposal includes income guidelines that more closely match those in neighboring cities and utility districts.

City staff has recommended the council adopt the income levels used by the state in determining low-income property tax exemptions. The income levels of Mountlake Terrace’s current discount program are based on federal poverty guidelines and the proposed change would allow those to be more closely tied to the local area’s economy.

City Manager Scott Hugill told the council it was currently unknown how adjusting the income thresholds would affect the number of people able to qualify for the discount program and the related impact on utility revenues. There were 108 households that received the reduction last year, but newer, more accurate data to help guide projections would be available after the results of the 2020 federal census are released later this year.

If adopted, more households with senior and disabled residents would be eligible to qualify for the discount. Several on the council said they would like to also consider allowing all households with low-incomes to receive the utility reductions, rather than just seniors and people with disabilities who are property owners.

“With the income levels we’re looking at folks aren’t moving into Mountlake Terrace” because of the local housing market, Councilmember Erin Murray said. “I’m very much looking at this as these are residents who are already in our community, who are struggling to stay in our community and are at a high risk of being displaced because of the cost of continuing to live here.”

Councilmember Bryan Wahl echoed Murray’s comments. “I really am sympathetic to all low-income households whether they are a renter or a property owner, disabled or not, senior or not, I think we need to expand this program,” he said.

The city council will hold its next regular business meeting Feb. 16, beginning at 7 p.m. See the agenda here.

— By Nathan Blackwell

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