Mayor Jason West advocates for more expansive village chicken-keeping

One of the village’s larger chickens, this beauty probably wouldn’t fit into a quarter-acre lot. (illustration by Lauren Thomas)

After months of revisions, public input and internal debate, by a four-to-one vote New Paltz’s village board has voted to approve the Backyard Chicken Law. But before the board acted last week a few final feathers flew.

Mayor Jason West, who cast the sole vote against the law, wanted to see the keeping of backyard chickens for domestic use allowed on smaller lot sizes than the minimum half-acre-lot requirement. “I can’t vote for a law that would only impact 5.9% of our village properties,” he proclaimed. He had calculated that only 77 village residential parcels out of a total of 1,290 were a half-acre or more in size. The law, he said, was too restrictive.

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“While a great law, a great idea,” the mayor said, “I can’t support it unless it applies more uniformly to the majority of our residents.”

The mayor wanted to allow for three chickens for quarter-acre lots and an additional three chickens for every additional quarter-acre. An hour of public input at the meeting was split between those who opposed backyard chickens and those who advocated “food sovereignty,” which would entail greater citizen control over the production/consumption of their eggs and poultry.

Ann and Peter Muller of Wildlife Watch, vocal animal activists, were opposed to the law on the grounds that it could lead to foxes (or coyotes) in the village’s henhouses, create fowl smells, increase noise, and lead to orphan poultry. The potential abandonment of chicken could entice randy roosters into the village, leading to possible animal abuse.

Trustee Ariana Basco, who brought the proposed law forward, said that no roosters would be permitted, and no slaughter. Under the legislation, the building inspector would have to sign off on a license for anyone who wanted to keep chickens. Setback and coop requirements would have to be met. An annual inspection would take place.

“Roosters come with chickens,” noted Ann Muller. “We do a lot of wildlife calls, and unfortunately roosters are used as packing materials to ship chickens. They’re mis-sexed and they will come. What will we do with them then?”

Tora Weitzman, who has been advocating for a similar law in the town, applauded the village for “stepping up with the times.” “This is not a fad,” she assured the board. “This has been going on for centuries in the rest of the world.”

Wildlife was already in the community, Weitzman said in response to Muller’s comments. “We have foxes, hawks, raccoons, skunks. Bird-feeders draw all kinds of wildlife into neighborhoods! People who raise chickens want to have control over their own food production. They want fresh eggs, and to move away from the direction of the agricultural-industrial farming machine which displays cruelty to animals that is unimaginable.” She added that there was no smell because chicken excrement could be composted and used on gardens.

 

All this time on a chicken law?

Gail Ganter-Toback, a village resident, expressed anger about the time being spent on the issue. “With all of the issues that we need to deal with in the village — great access for those with disabilities, noise pollution, the poor condition of our sidewalks — you’re spending all of this time on a chicken law?” Like Muller, she feared that chickens would invite a host of problems to the village.

If the village were to pass the law, Vici Danskin suggested that it restrict the coops to the backyards and not sideyards as well. She also suggested that the fine for violating the regulations of the law be doubled, because in her estimation “all of the fines in the town and the village are way too low and there are already so many instances of laws that go unenforced.”

Brian Obach, a village resident, thanked Basco for bringing forth the proposed law. The issue in his mind it came down to “the right of people to produce their own food.” None of the arguments against the law were compelling enough to him to restrict that right. Noise from “drunk students, vehicular traffic, morning birds and crickets” would not be drowned out by chicken noises. Wildlife was alive and well in the village already. Besides, chickens ate ticks, a major cause of Lyme disease.

“All of these claims are speculative without any basis or proof,” orated Obach, “and we’re talking about a very small number of people raising a small amount of chickens and eggs for their own consumption, which is a much more humane endeavor than continuing to support the industrial agricultural system.”

Others stated that chickens were already being raised in the town and the village. This law provided greater restrictions and oversight to an existing practice. Several pro-backyard-chicken-law advocates pleaded with the board to lower the $100 licensing fee as it would, in their belief, “hurt the people in the lower socio-economic strata that want to raise their own eggs for both health and economic benefits.”

“There are responsible people and irresponsible people, and unfortunately we can’t legislate that,” responded deputy mayor Sally Rhoades. “But I believe this law, with all of the restrictions in it, will make it very hard for an irresponsible person to raise chickens.”

In the end the board kept the law as it was, with the $100 licensing fee, and restricting three chickens per half-acre lot, with an additional three chickens being allowed for each additional half-acre.

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