North Huntingdon chicken ordinance has potential to ruffle feathers

| Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Aaron McGregor is determined to teach his child about a sustainable lifestyle and from where exactly food is derived.

“I want to teach my child that eggs come from a chicken instead of a Styrofoam box at the grocery store,” he said. “My interest is teaching my child, as well as being able to produce my own food and living off my small piece of property.”

McGregor, 42, of North Huntingdon, spearheaded the Norwin Poultry Society group to post updates regarding the township's potential ordinance to regulate domestic chickens. The township's planning commission met last week to discuss the measure.

Commission members tweaked recommendations and asked the draft be reviewed by a chicken specialist from the Penn State Extension before a vote is taken, which could happen as soon as its next meeting on Aug. 26.

“The way I view it, it seems like there's progress coming along, and the planning commission had to really scrutinize everything, and I think this is just part of making sure this ordinance is going to benefit the greater community of North Huntingdon,” he said. “I think it has real possibility of happening.”

McGregor said he did not grow up around chickens, but his interest was piqued as he began reading about how to care for them. He and his wife already maintain a small vegetable garden in their backyard that they hope to fertilize with chicken manure, if the ordinance passes.

“This is how it was done 100 years ago,” McGregor said. “I think that's sort of a beautiful thing. Having the entire yard as part of the small ecosystem is really interesting to me.”

There is no count of the number of municipalities that regulate backyard chickens in Pennsylvania, but there has been an uptick over the past five years, said Phillip Clauer, a senior instructor specializing in poultry programs at the Westmoreland County Penn State Extension.

“It has slowed down over the past year in most areas,” he said. “It really depends on the local officials. This movement has come and gone for years. I remember this being (popular) in the late '70s and early '80s, as well.”

Currently in North Huntingdon, only property owners with at least 10 acres can have chickens. The township has received four or five requests for backyard chickens on smaller properties, said Andrew Blenko, planning director and engineer.

“I cannot minimize the extra staff time that I feel will be needed to enforce this ordinance and respond to complaints from aggrieved neighbors. Nonetheless, domestic chickens (are) very much in vogue right now, and the township commissioners have asked for guidance on an ordinance allowing this practice,” he said.

Blenko recently attended an online workshop to learn from specialists about how to care for backyard chickens — as well as how other municipalities wrote and enforce their ordinances.

From that workshop, Blenko said, he was able to make recommendations for the township's draft ordinance. Among his recommendations — keeping coops on a concrete slab or up in the air and constructing a gate to keep chickens contained and protected.

“If they're in a wooden frame on the ground, you will end up with vermin and things living under the frame, and they'll come out for the chicken feed and then go back where they live,” he said. “So that's what I thought was a very good suggestion. Whatever you build doesn't provide an opportunity for vermin to get underneath because that will ultimately become their home.”

Some recommendations, Blenko said, will be difficult to enforce. Those include ensuring the coop is maintained and that chicken noise and odor do not offend neighbors.

“Those are pretty subjective standards,” he said. “I can see a neighbor saying, ‘I smell it,' and a zoning officer saying, ‘I don't smell it.' Who's right, and who's wrong?”

Amanda Dolasinski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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