As Luzerne County officials embark on a debate about backyard chickens, Amy Farkas warns them to prepared for heated arguments from both sides.
Farkas is known as the “chicken queen” in the municipality she manages near State College because she became so involved in the subject when it was hashed out there. She recently conducted an online seminar on the regulating of backyard chickens for municipal officials because so many local governments across Pennsylvania and the country are wrestling with requests to allow hens in urban areas.
“I get calls from all over. It’s a big huge trend right now within the local government world,” said Farkas, the manager of Harris Township.
The township ended up allowing backyard chickens in 2012 after roughly nine months of research and discussion, and Farkas said the issue inflamed the community to a degree she did not expect. Backyard burning was the only other issue she recalled that got residents so worked up.
Supporters pushed for the right to keep hens for fresh eggs because they want to know the origin of their food. Opponents said chickens belong in farms, not residential neighborhoods. Meeting minutes indicate some were hesitant to go public with their concerns because they were “afraid of reprisal from pro-chicken residents.”
“It got very emotional,” Farkas said. “A local television station did a spoof of our chicken debates because they went on so long.”
Pringle resident Christine Dixon, who serves on borough council and co-owns a shop in Luzerne, raised the issue in Luzerne County when she recently asked county council to revise a zoning ordinance banning chickens in residential areas.
The borough is among 23 municipalities that rely on the county for zoning, and a change in county regulations would apply to all of them.
Dixon said she practices organic gardening with no chemicals and acquired hens to produce up to a dozen eggs a week. These eggs are higher in protein and omega-3 fatty acids and have less cholesterol, she said.
“I like to know what I am eating and how the animals were treated,” said Dixon.
She doesn’t have any noisy roosters and said she keeps the hens contained and stores the waste used for composting in closed containers. Dixon supports regulations, such as a limit on the number of hens and a ban on roosters.
“People all over the country are increasingly interested in local food. I don’t believe the chickens should be allowed to run free. I don’t want 50 chickens on a residential property,” she said.
Dixon also considers her hens pets.
“They have their own names and personalities,” she said.
The county’s zoning ordinance says farm animals, which have always been interpreted to include chickens, are not permitted in residential, neighborhood business, community business or mining districts, county interim Planning/Zoning Director Nancy Snee told council in an email. Household pets are limited to four per family in residential districts under the ordinance.
The county Zoning Hearing Board denied Dixon’s request for a variance to allow the hens on her property in December. The county must begin legal action against Dixon at the magisterial level, which could result in fines, because she did not comply with a directive to remove the chickens from her property by Feb. 7, Snee said.
Dixon said a friend in West Pittston, which allows backyard chickens, has agreed to take the chickens if necessary, though the ground is too frozen to install fencing at this time.
“I hope it doesn’t come to that,” Dixon said.
Pringle Councilman Joseph Piazza publicly urged council members to keep the chicken ban in effect, saying a majority of council wants the county to stand firm.
Piazza, a former county prison warden, pointed to the owners of dogs and cats who don’t control or clean up after their pets and predicted similar problems with chickens. The borough doesn’t have the resources to properly monitor chickens to ensure they don’t become a nuisance, he told council.
Councilman Rick Williams, who chairs council’s operational services committee, said the issue will be reviewed over multiple meetings before a recommendation is presented to the full council for a vote.
“It’s an issue worthy of discussion and consideration. Sustainability and natural foods are all part of the current conversation of how we improve our lives, though I understand there are many subtleties related to the issue,” Williams said.
Kingston Township said no
Dixon isn’t the first county resident approaching local officials with the chicken request.
In 2012, Kingston Township supervisors voted against changing an ordinance prohibiting the keeping of fowl in residential areas.
Township resident Chris Mathers pushed for that change, saying she had a right to grow her own food. She also said chickens keep away mosquitoes, ticks and other insects, and their manure can be used for compost. Supervisors expressed concerns about the impact on neighbors and property values and the zoning officer’s ability to monitor flocks.
Suzanne Kapral-Kelly, who oversees development and marketing at the nonprofit Lands at Hillside Farms in Kingston Township, has expressed frustration she can’t practice urban chicken farming at her Kingston residence due to a zoning ordinance ban.
Kapral-Kelly said she is considering applying for a variance and has been following Dixon’s campaign.
“We can have dogs, and there are several breeds considered aggressive and assertive, but this woman can’t have three hens for the food benefit?” Kapral-Kelly said. “I really don’t understand the logic.”
Kapral-Kelly encourages county and municipal officials to pass rules and guidelines so residents can “raise their own food with respect to neighbors, birds and the environment.”
She encounters students at the Lands at Hillside Farms who never saw a live chicken or cow before and have no knowledge of their food source beyond the supermarket.
“I want to know as much as possible about where my food comes from, and I think the healthier and more humanely an animal is raised, the higher quality food you get,” she said.
Farkas said her municipality banned roosters on lots under 10 acres in residential zones. The owners of 3,000-square-foot lots can have two hens, while up to eight hens are permitted on a 21,000-square-foot parcel.
Chicken coops must meet the same setback requirements as sheds and can’t be located in front or side yards or near a neighbor’s property line. The coops must be ventilated, stationary, predator-resistant and enclosed so the birds won’t escape, she said.
“We also learned chickens need exercise, so we have to allow chicken tractors or chicken runs,” Farkas said.
Farkas and other township officials also addressed the possibility some residents would want to eat their chickens, not just keep them for eggs.
“We didn’t want chickens running around with their heads cut off. We allow slaughtering and butchering, but it has to be done inside,” she said.
They also didn’t want less vigilant chicken keepers amassing “piles of poop” mislabeled as compost, so the ordinance prohibits large quantities of manure outside, she said.
Around 15 property owners obtained permits to keep chickens, said Farkas, who occasionally receives eggs as gifts from residents who don’t realize she is allergic to them.
She is personally torn on the issue of allowing chickens because one city in another state was pressed to start permitting goats in residential areas after chickens were legalized.
“Agricultural uses were zoned out of residential areas for a reason. I don’t want to live next to a horse, cow or pig,” Farkas said.
Some folks in rural farm areas poke fun at the push for urban chickens, she said.
“They ask, ‘What do these city folks want with chickens?’”
Farkas’ involvement in chickens began before the zoning matter in 2008, when wild chickens of unknown origin appeared in the township’s historic village of Boalsburg. The fowl gang included roosters that “annoy the crap out of everybody,” but officials left the birds alone after some unsuccessful attempts to relocate them because the chickens became part of the village fabric.
Residents must stop their vehicles when the chickens are crossing, she said. The wild flock is down to around six but at one point multiplied to 18, prompting the feral chickens to gang up on each other.
“It was like ‘West Side Story,’ with the Sharks versus the Jets,” she said.