Friday, August 9, 2013

Pros and Cons of Keeping Poultry Discussed at "Chicken Dialogues"

By Christina Georgiou

About 60 people attended Thursday evening's "Chicken Dialogues" at the Nurture Nature Center, a presentation and question and answer session on the practice of keeping backyard chickens, and most members of the public seemed favorable towards the idea of allowing the practice in Easton, but some city officials who attended the event seem unconvinced.

Two experts presented various aspects of what keeping backyard poultry entails. Brian Moyer, program director for the Penn State Extension, talked about the physical requirements of keeping a small flock of chickens in non-farm environments, while Stacy Yoder of Boucher and James discussed how zoning ordinances regulating the practice are crafted, using several examples of existing laws in the region.

Moyer said that keeping chickens in residential settings has been gaining popularity in recent years, and that with proper management and provided the small flocks are entirely comprised of hens with no roosters, they're fairly unlikely to cause problems in the neighborhood.

"I do a lot of backyard poutry classes, so this is a very popular topic," he said. "There are ways to mitigate the issues."

Chickens that spend some time outdoors need one square foot per animal, and those keep entirely indoors need at least three square feet per hen, he said.

Most chickens live up to 10 years, but are only capable of laying eggs for three to six of those years, Moyer noted, and a flock of 10 chickens will lay an average of nine eggs per day for about 260 days of the year.

"So we have to consider...what are you going to do when she stops laying?" he asked.

Keeping the coop clean and also having a well-constructed, aesthetically pleasing coop, along with placing it far enough away from neighboring properties are some of the keys to avoiding potential issues keeping poultry can raise.

Having a plan of what to do with chicken waste is also imperative, Moyer said, noting that while chicken manure makes good garden fertilizer, it can't immediately be worked into garden soil.

"If you don't have a good way of composting it, it will burn your plants," he said.

Storing chicken feed correctly is also important.

"Rodents can be a big issue if you don't store the feed correctly or keep the coop clean," Moyer noted. "But keeping the food in metal trash cans can solve a lot of issues."

The chickens themselves must also be protected from predators, such as hawks, raccoons, and weasels, and in addition to an adequate shelter, the property around the chickens should be well-maintained.

"If you've got weeds, you've got a place for predators to hide," he said. "Weasels are the worst because they don't necessarily kill their food."

Having a rooster in the flock is not necessary for egg production, he noted.

Stacy Yoder, left, of Boucher and James, with Penn
State Extension program assistant Brian Moyer, discuss
various aspects of keeping backyard chickens in urban
"You do not need roosters to have eggs. There's no good reason to keep roosters unless you're going to eat them," he said, adding, "Roosters are noisy. They aren't nice, but they aren't supposed to be nice. Their job is to protect the flock...Hens aren't going to make much noise."

Yoder, whose company specializes in creating ordinances for municipalities also said backyard chickens, and subsequently laws governing if and how they are to be kept, have gained popularity in recent years.

In most places, keeping poultry is a zoning issue, but some places, like Bethlehem, have chosen to make chickens and other livestock a stand-alone issue.

"When regulating for chickens, especially in an urban setting, it would be an accessory use," she said. "Zoning can regulate buffering, like landscaping to screen the chickens from neighboring property owners."

But however a municipality chooses to regulate the practice, "All zoning ordinances should be easily enforced," she said. "You want to keep it simple...something that's easy for code officers to get a quick look and verify that everything's in order."

Bethlehem, the nearest municipality on which she had specific information, allows the keeping of chickens by special exception only, which are approved directly by the city council, not the zoning hearing board.

"I can't say the City of Bethlehem is really pro-chicken," she said, noting that even with special permission, keeping fowl is limited to the "rural" districts and compliance with the law is checked by the animal control officer.

Also in Bethlehem, "The permitter accepts full responsibility for the capture of any animal that escapes his or her presence," she said.

Some of the attendees Thursday evening live in municipalities that allow the raising of backyard chickens for egg production and helped answer questions from Easton residents.

One noted that one of the example ordinances Yoder provided required a minimum of three acres for chickens to be kept.

"The requirement for three acres seems more appropriate for dairy cows, not chickens. That seems a little ridiculous," he said.

"There is no specific formula," said Yoder. "It depends on the municipality."

She noted that in a city like Easton, having a law that required a coop be set back a minimum number of feet from a neighboring property line might make more sense.

Four members of Easton's city council were present Thursday--Jeff Warren, Roger Ruggles, Ken Brown, and Sandra Vulcano. None of the four indicated their position on the matter directly, but comments from two indicated that if the city changes the ordinance, many still may not be able to keep chickens.

"One of the things we need to think about is what can happen in a neighborhood. We can write a code, but to enforce that code can be a big issue," Ruggles said. "In a good situation, there's not a problem. But in a bad situation, you're impacting the neighbors and the neighborhood. It's not the good people; it's what happens when things start to slide."

He added,"As a councilperson, one of the things I have to think about is, how do we distribute our resources?...Implementation is a big deal."

Ken Brown said it's important to "look at the total picture" when considering changing Easton's chicken laws, and that keeping chickens would be more suited to owner-occupied properties over rental situations.

"I think everyone needs to work together for this to work well," he said. "I think it will work well in College Hill much more than in Downtown or the West Ward."

"I think this could be done with a bit of forethought," countered on resident. "If we took the worst case scenario, we wouldn't have dogs. Certainly there will be irresponsible people, but do we want to base our laws on the lowest common denominator? I think it's doable."

Another presentation attendee suggested that "a volunteer chicken delegate" might act as a go-between chicken owners and the city, which would help with enforcement and eliminating potential problems and issues.

It was also suggested that a co-op could be formed to allow people who live on properties unsuitable for keeping chickens to still do so and also get the benefits of having fresh eggs. The program could be run in a similar fashion to the city's community gardens.

A young attendee pets "Firecracker" a
Silkie/Cochin mix chicken, held by Nicole
Kilhullen, 11, of Stewartsville, NJ. Firecracker
and another unnamed chicken accompanied
the Kilhullens to "Chicken Dialogues" and
uttered not so much as a peep during the

 "My understanding is that the chicken ordinance is fairly recent, but that before there was a chicken ordinance, the city wasn't overrun with chickens or chicken smell," said another attendee, who added that she's in favor of laws governing the practice as long as it's allowed. "I don't think there are huge numbers of people that will be interested."

About five people indicated in a hand poll that they'd actually be interested in keeping chickens themselves, and about 10 said they might be interested in joining a chicken co-op, but some were the same people.

Ruggles said the city council planning committee will likely hold a discussion of the matter in city council chambers on either Tuesday, Sept. 10 or Tuesday, Sept. 24.

Thursday's presentation and subsequent discussions expected to take place next month at city council committee meetings were precipitated by a request by a College Hill resident in May that the city reconsider its ban on keeping fowl. She has suggested Easton allow up to six hens, but no roosters, to be kept for egg production.

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