New zoning should allow backyard hens

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale Spencer

Portrait of poultry pride: Katy and Matt Wilson, from Delmar, love their chickens — Betsy, named for Betsy Ross, and Carmel, named for its color.

Times change.

And a town’s zoning, if it is to be fair and effective, must keep up with those changes.

We commend Guilderland’s town board for appointing a zoning review committee to update the town’s 1984 code. The committee of eight has been at work for nearly four years and plans to complete its task at the end of this month, according to its chairman, Kenneth Brownell.

Brownell, a partner in a commercial real-estate firm, praised the work of Peter Barber, a zoning attorney who chairs the town’s zoning board of appeals; Steve Feeney, a planner by trade who heads Guilderland’s planning board; Joseph Abbruzzese of Altamont Orchards; attorney Martin Kehoe; Kathy Burbank, who heads Community Caregivers; Ted Danz of Family Danz Heating and Cooling; and Regina DuBois, who served as a state deputy commissioner for Civil Service.

“It’s a citizens’ committee with Republicans and Democrats and independents, a cross-section of a wide spectrum,” said Brownell. He said the committee’s decisions weren’t “always unanimous,” but the dissent “created a better document.”

“The town can use it as a master plan,” Brownell said, noting that the recommendations are being drafted to last for more than a few years. “We looked at issues not here in 1984,” he said, with an eye to making the zoning dovetail with current uses. “It’s not like we redesigned the town,” said Brownell.

Some of the major issues that are new in the last 30 years include new energy systems like solar, and also mixed-use developments and “green planning for intelligent growth,” said Brownell.

Something else that is new in the last 30 years is the trend back to backyard chickens, or keeping chickens as pets, part of a national movement for locally sourced food.

At a series of public hearings held by the zoning review committee, Brownell said, the most “yelling and screaming” was over chickens. “It was the hottest topic.” He also said, “It was a dead-even split” between those advocating for and those against allowing chickens.

Brownell won’t reveal what the committee will recommend to the town board on chickens or any other topic. So now is a good time for us to weigh in, before the town board deliberates on the recommendations and votes to adopt changes to Guilderland’s zoning law.

Currently, the law is silent on chickens; it neither forbids nor allows them. This means residents who want to keep chickens have to appeal to the zoning board, which decides on a case-by-case basis. Chickens have been allowed at two residential properties, one on Lillian Road and the other on Ildra Lane. Last week, the zoning board declined a third applicant, Dale Owen, from Mohawk Drive. 

The law should address the matter, relieving the zoning board of its need to interpret. Gautam Aitch, who keeps six hens in his Ildra Lane yard, told us he believes they were allowed because his neighbors supported his having them. Many of Owen’s neighbors objected. A board should not decide this matter, or any other, based on who fills a room at a public hearing.

The town has nearly 35,000 residents and just a tiny fraction speak out at hearings.

Listening to the story of Aitch and his chickens was instructive. A United States citizen, Aitch grew up in India where, he said, keeping chickens is commonplace and rules forbidding the practice unheard of.

“We have a lot of freedom there,” Aitch said of India. “Whoever has a little bit of land has chickens,” said Aitch who, at 50, dreams of retiring one day from his work as a computer specialist to have a small self-sustaining farm, “just for myself and my family to get away from the hormones and chemicals.”

So, he set up his coop without knowing he needed permission. Once he was told, Aitch said, “The town officer was very nice, helping me through the application process.” Letters were sent to 50-some neighbors about a public hearing.  Two “had issues with roosters,” said Aitch, who got rid of the roosters.

“All of the neighbors were supportive of the chickens,” he said, adding, “I’m indebted to them.”

Since keeping his hens was approved, Aitch said, he’s had no complaints. “The kids love them,” he said. “They come just to visit them and feed them from their hands.”

He supplements their diet with organic feed, but mostly his hens eat grass and bugs, so that his golden retriever, who had frequently suffered from ticks, hasn’t had any, said Aitch.

The hens generally lay an egg each per day in the summer and not as much in the winter, maybe a half-dozen in a week. Aitch’s permit does not allow him to sell the eggs; he enjoys giving them to friends and neighbors as well as feeding his family.

Aitch said the eggs taste “distinctly better” than eggs bought at the store.

He concluded, “Neighbors should understand that it’s a very healthy way of doing things...It’s a cyclical synergistic living, and they give you eggs.”

Aitch’s example disproves many of the objections to allowing backyard or pet hens. Hens are quieter than pet dogs. They often cluck, though, as they lay eggs, which has been measured at between 60 and 70 decibels, or near the level of two people talking.

Chickens produce less waste than many household pets — a 40-pound dog, for instance, generates more excrement than 10 chickens — and chicken manure is valuable, and even sold as, fertilizer high in nitrogen.

It’s healthier for the hens to live in a backyard coop than the large commercial farms and better for people, too. There are about three times as many hens in this world — at over 24 billion — as there are people. They have been domesticated and lived with humans for as long as ancient peoples made written records.

The aberration was our culture’s distancing, since the Industrial Revolution, of people from their food sources, mass-producing in factory-like settings what used to be done at a household level. Many of us grew up in an era where we thought of eggs as coming from the grocery store.

Even some of our grandparents, though, remember gathering eggs from backyard chickens. Coops still stand behind many Guilderland homes; some of them transformed to tool sheds, others to play houses.

A family with chickens could invite skeptical residents to see how it really works, rather than let speculation form opinions.

Year after year, we cover kids who bring their pet chickens to the Altamont Fair to be judged and admired. Each looks as much at home with a chicken tucked under her arm as Paris Hilton does with her little dog. They softly stroke their pets and talk to them.

Last August at the fair, Matt Wilson introduced us to his Rhode Island red, named Caramel for its color. “Even though I get tired of cleaning the cage, I don’t want him to go,” he said. “He’ll be with me until he passes away.”

Kids and grown-ups should be able to choose their own pets.

The town would be wise to allow chickens. Certainly, parameters could be set. For instance, no roosters if there are concerns about crowing being bothersome. And, just as most towns set limits on the numbers of dogs allowed at a residence before a kennel permit is required, so, too, could the number of chickens be limited. (We believe that many of the objections come from thinking of the smell and disease at large chicken farms, which does not apply to a few backyard hens.)

Also, the law could restrict the size of the property and how far from other houses the coop must be. There could even be restrictions on coop construction; manufacturers are making coops to fill the growing urban trend. And, as with Aitch’s case, commercial operations could be prohibited.

Plenty of American municipalities allow chickens and Guilderland should, too. A law that clearly sets out what is permitted and what isn’t would be good for everyone. Once the law is no longer silent, the human clucking over chickens should be silenced instead.

Melissa Hale-Spencer

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