The Ulster Town Board last week adopted a controversial new law to regulate ownership of chickens in two different residential zoning districts. But officials made it clear they’d have preferred not to.
“Amongst this board there is great consensus that this is an issue between neighbors, and it should be addressed between neighbors,” said Town Supervisor James E. Quigley III before the legislation passed by a 4-0 vote. “But seeing that we can’t get the neighbors to talk to each other, we are forced to now take a position and install a structure under which we can enforce some type of penalty if someone doesn’t play nice. We don’t want to restrict roosters. But if someone has a complaint from their neighbors about some neighbor’s roosters, we need something to be able to enforce. Consequently, a prohibition against roosters.”
The law as unanimously passed — Deputy Supervisor Eric Kitchen was absent — is focused specifically on the keeping of chickens by residents within the R-10 and R-30 zones, and would prohibit owning roosters unless grandfathered in; would require chickens be kept in a secure pen or enclosure; would require pens to be placed at least 20 feet from property lines and 30 feet from neighboring houses; and would require chicken manure to be at least 30 feet from property lines. A no-fee five-year permit is also required to own chickens in the affected zones.
While chickens have garnered the most interest from the public during a series of sometimes raucous discussions, the animal husbandry law as previously proposed covered much more territory. In addition to chickens and roosters, sheep, goats, alpaca, llamas, pigs, mink, raccoons, horses and miniature equine were some of the animals subject to restriction under the originally proposed law.
After its defeat, the proposed law seemed unlikely to resurface, but an issue between neighbors on Carle Terrace earlier this year resulted in the latest fowl-oriented iteration. One neighbor owns chickens, the others have a son they believe contracted a serious illness from those chickens. Mycobacterium avium complex can commonly be found in food, water and soil. In concentrated amounts, the germs can cause serious illness in those with weakened immune systems, such as toddlers.
During a public hearing on Thursday, Nov. 3, David Lomasney, father of the boy at the center of the Carle Terrace disagreement, said the legislation favors responsible chicken ownership.
“I came from a family that had chickens,” Lomasney said. “We didn’t let the chickens roam free. We took care of the chickens, they were in pens. It was a lot of work. Chickens are a lot of work and, if people are taking care of their chickens and handling their business, there’s no problems. If your neighbors don’t have a problem with your chickens, let them run free. But when a neighbor does have a problem, there’s no law to go back on. There’s no grounds. Since this has all been going on for months, he still has his chickens running free.”
Lomasney added that, in his opinion, the law didn’t seem overly restrictive. “Five years, one application? This isn’t a lot to ask of anybody,” he said. “I completely support the law.”
Lomasney’s neighbor, Edward Hixson, said the matter should have been settled between the neighbors.
“I would believe that anybody at any time would have the right if chickens came on their property of complaining about that and say, ‘You must keep your stuff off my property,’ whether it be a dog, a horse, a chicken or anything else,” he said. Maybe I’m mistaken, but I would assume it was already the case that everyone has the right over their own property. I would basically be in sympathy with those who feel the town has done fine for a very long time without this law, and I would speak in favor of it remaining as it is.”
Quigley agreed, though he added that the legislation gives the town the authority to step in when neighbors can’t work things out.
“New York State agricultural law governs the licensing of dogs, and the town has a body of laws that it can go to when there is a violation and a dog bites a neighbor or a dog is running free,” Quigley said. “Unfortunately, there is no body of law regulating chickens running free in the neighborhood. The town can’t do anything other than to show up at your house and ask you politely to keep your chickens in your yard. That’s what this law is designed to try to address, is to give the town some authority over chickens so that when we show up because your chickens are loose, we’ll be polite, yes, but there’ll be an obligation on your part to comply. Because right now there is no obligation to comply.”
Quigley said the permits were necessary to help town officials figure out who chickens belong to if they’re called out for a complaint.
“We’re trying to prevent free-range within the neighborhood within the R10 and R30 zones,” he said. “We’re trying to present a hygiene standard so that when it gets smelly, our code enforcement officers can do something when there is a complaint. We put the roosters in there to give our code enforcement officers the ability to do something if the neighbors are complaining about the roosters. We’re trying to make this as minimally intrusive as possible. The use of the word ‘permit’ is an unfortunate choice of words, but there is no other way for the town to be put on notice that someone has chickens. We’ve got a large town, and everyone knows it.”
Frank Rittie, a local resident and chicken owner, opposed the legislation, saying it infringed on a right that’s been in place in the community for a long time. “All of these years, farming has saved me, my family, as well as other members of the community wheelbarrows full of money,” Rittie said. “This scenario can be seen in many of the neighborhoods throughout the town in and out of the targeted R-10 and R-30 districts. This is not just a lifestyle, it’s a livelihood. Many people use these livestock as food and bartering commodities.”
Rittie suggested that the issue was with people who’d moved into the area recently, asking town officials for the names, addresses and time of residence of people who’ve complained; that request was denied.
“Recently, there has been an influx of people moving into the area who don’t like this type of life,” Rittie said. “We shouldn’t change the entire way of life for the people who did grow up in these areas and deny them the opportunity to enjoy and benefit from the homesteading of which many of us count on for a source of livelihood and just plain enjoyment.”