The Harer family never dreamed that their brood of backyard hens and Peter, the potbellied pig, could one day land them in court, much less place them amid a widespread debate about what animals may live where.
But a pending lawsuit, Tom and Edie Harer say, is the latest development in a complicated saga over animals in Northfork, an upscale Ramsey neighborhood they moved to 25 years ago.
The family brought the chickens home last spring, and Peter arrived soon after. The Harers received the first letter about their chickens from their homeowners association in October. And by mid-December, they were being sued.
“It’s extremely alarming,” Edie Harer said. “How is our pet potbellied pig and chickens hurting anyone?”
The association alleges that Peter, the chickens and the outdoor structures the animals inhabit violate Northfork’s governing documents. The association’s board of directors declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation.
The Northfork debate comes at a time of booming interest in backyard chickens. Ramsey is among a growing number of cities around the metro that have made allowances for chickens, including Minneapolis and St. Paul.
“It’s part of a national trend,” said Wayne Martin, an educator with the University of Minnesota Extension Service. That trend, Martin added, has picked up steam in the last five years.
As cities make room for residents’ interest in locally sourced food, neighborhoods such as Northfork have grappled with disputes over urban agriculture.
Peter — a 45-pound female pig named by the Harers’ two youngest sons — even came up at a recent City Council meeting, where officials granted the family a nontraditional animal license to keep her, despite objections from the association, which considers Peter prohibited livestock.
City leaders noted, however, that the license does not supersede the association’s pet guidelines, which can be stricter than the city’s.
In Northfork, uproar over chickens came before drama over Peter. The ensuing dispute has been described by one resident as the “great Northfork chicken debate,” and neighbors are not of one mind about keeping fowl.
There have been mailings, social media jabs, a ballot survey, threats of fines, door-to-door canvassing and allegations of trespassing. The Harers also recently led a signature drive and knocked on more than 200 doors of the 274 homes in their neighborhood. The couple have several binders full of documents, tucked in page protectors, and are building their response to the suit.
“They’re throwing a lawsuit at us, and we will be responding,” Edie Harer said.
The great debate
Chicken advocates cite fresh eggs, free pest control and waste suitable for composting as key benefits.
Opponents question the health effects of the waste and worry about hits to property values with backyard livestock nearby.
Ramsey amended its ordinance in 2012 to permit chickens on smaller properties. But homeowner associations rules can be “more restrictive than what the city allows,” said City Attorney Joseph Langel.
According to letters submitted to the City Council, the Northfork Homeowners Association revised its animal rules to ban livestock — including chickens and pigs — soon after the city opted to allow backyard chickens.
Some neighbors, including the Harers, say the association’s rule change and the document containing it weren’t widely publicized until recently.
The association’s attorney, Mark Berglund, declined to comment. He has written to the city, however, stating that the Harers’ backyard structures for their outdoor pets also lacked approval.
The Harer family contests that charge. They contend that the structures have been up long enough for de-facto approval, and argue that the Northfork board of directors can no longer take action.
The fenced-in dwellings house Peter, eight chickens, two cats and three rabbits. The cats and rabbits are not involved in the dispute.
The Harers aren’t the ones who’ve tended chickens in Northfork, where many homes sell for more than $400,000.
Bill Rabe, who has lived in Northfork since 1993, acquired chickens in April 2015. Months later, he got a letter from the homeowners association about the rule change.
“My wife was broken up over it,” said Rabe, adding that they soon got rid of their flock. “We even looked into moving.”
Lanee Arndt, another former chicken owner, did move, frustrated with objections to her fowl as well as other association rules.
Last spring, for instance, Arndt said her sons collected logs and built a fort shaped like a teepee in the backyard. A member of the association’s board came knocking to tell her that she needed a permit for the teepee, Arndt said.
“We wanted to live on acreage so that our kids could play outside and have that kind of lifestyle,” said Arndt, who left the neighborhood in November. She now pays two mortgages while waiting for her Northfork home to sell.
Others in the neighborhood say that the association is only trying to preserve the vision of Northfork as “an executive golf course community.”
In their letter to the City Council, Northfork residents Bill and Nancy Kingston noted that the homeowners association’s governing documents don’t allow a “hobby farm.” Bill Kingston is president of the Northfork board of directors.
Northfork resident Matt Petitclair — who referred to the dispute as “the great Northfork chicken debate” in a letter to the city — says he sympathizes with the association’s board members. He says they’re “reasonable guys” dealing with a homeowner who is “in clear violation of the rules.”
“The situation,” Petitclair added, “is both entertaining and kind of disappointing.”
The Harers say they plan to stay put in their dream house, come what may with the animals.
And until their day in court, they said, they will enjoy their domestic menagerie. Even on cold afternoons, the family bundles up to watch Peter keep company with the family’s three-legged dog, a Goldendoodle named Teddy.
For now, Peter will stay in the backyard enclosure with the chickens and other outdoor pets — unaware, it seems, of the drama brewing just beyond their pen.