'Urban farming' growing concern in Mt. Lebanon

Matthew Santoni
| Wednesday, July 9, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Mt. Lebanon officials will consider whether they need regulations for “urban agriculture” in the suburban community, joining a number of municipalities and community groups that are trying to accommodate residents who want to keep chickens and beehives.

Despite the fact that it is a built-out and dense inner-ring suburb, Mt. Lebanon does not regulate backyard beehives, chicken coops or other small-scale urban farming operations, said municipal spokeswoman Susan Morgans.

“Mt. Lebanon started out as a farming community, so I guess it's possible as the community evolved into a built-out suburb, it never occurred to people to update (the laws),” she said.

Amy Bader and her husband keep about seven chickens in a coop and fenced garden on her property just off Washington Road, which drivers can glimpse through the hedges as they head north. She's heard of several other Mt. Lebanon residents who keep chickens and bees, and Morgans said municipal officials hear from people on both sides of the issue.

“We do it mostly for the eggs, but also as a family project,” Bader said. “My daughters are really into animals, so the chicks started out in our garage. ... It's been a fun project.”

Commissioner John Bendel broached the issue when he received a complaint from a resident who thought a neighbor built a beehive too close to the property line. The commissioners are tentatively scheduled to discuss it at their July 28 meeting.

Steve Repasky, president of Burgh Bees, a beekeeping support and advocacy group, said more and more Pittsburgh-area communities are incorporating urban agriculture into their zoning codes as residents seek fresh eggs and honey.

It hasn't just been the rural communities embracing it either, Repasky said. In June 2013, Forest Hills passed regulations for both chickens and bees that he is trying to use as a “model ordinance” for other communities he is working with, including Findlay, Hampton and Sewickley Heights. Advocates of raising chickens are working in Edgewood to overturn a ban on keeping hens there, he said, and Wilkinsburg passed an ordinance allowing chickens but not bees.

Forest Hill's building inspector and zoning officer, Pat Earley, said only about 15 people have applied for chicken and bee permits there since they became available in September. The code includes requirements for setbacks from neighbors, and limits residents to four hens. Roosters are not allowed.

“They keep it real small, but that's all a person in the suburbs needs,” Earley said.

“It's been so far, so good,” said Don Branzel, code enforcement officer. “Most of the coops are done in very, very good taste; they look like little doll homes.”

The City of Pittsburgh allows chicken coops and beehives, provided the owners meet requirements for lot size, setbacks and a maximum number of hens or beehives tied to the size of the lot.

“If Pittsburgh can do it and Forest Hills can do it, any place less dense than those areas can do it,” Repasky said.

Matthew Santoni is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at msantoni@tribweb.com.

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