Residents cry 'fowl' over restrictions on raising chickens
By Bobby Cherry
Published: Wednesday, July 10, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Jon Barker wants to raise chickens in his backyard, but unclear zoning regulations in his community leave the Baldwin Borough resident without a chicken coop of his own.
He's among a number of suburban Pittsburgh residents who want to ditch store-bought eggs for backyard chickens.
Their efforts, in some cases, are forcing municipal leaders to reconsider ordinances about farm fowl in residential neighborhoods — in many areas where farms once ruled the roost.
“It's about having local, fresh eggs,” said Barker, 31, who along with his partner, Amber Aughenbaugh, have petitioned Baldwin Borough to consider adopting an ordinance similar to one in Pittsburgh allowing residents to keep chickens in their backyards.
“We don't want to eat the chickens,” Barker said. “We don't consider them pets but also don't consider them livestock.”
Because Baldwin Borough does not clearly regulate property owners keeping chickens, Barker said, he won't consider a coop until the municipality's ordinances change.
“We thought it best to do it officially instead of skirting around the law,” he said.
In Hampton, resident Max Rosarius awaits a ruling on an appeal he filed in September in Allegheny County Common Please Court against the township zoning hearing board denying the homeowner's request to keep chickens on his 14 acres.
Rosarius said he thinks communities are “deliberately trying to zone farms out of business because they want to have (the land) for development.”
Last year, Hampton officials cited Rosarius for violating the municipality's zoning ordinance after one of his goats escaped. He also was cited for noisy fowl after residents' complaints.
Rosarius takes care of about 50 roosters and hens and four goats in an area of the township where local zoning rules prohibit farm animals.
He contends the state's Right-To-Farm Act allows residents with at least 10 acres to have a farm and said his property would qualify.
“It should not be an issue anywhere,” Rosarius said. “My God, this is still America.”
Hampton solicitor Vincent Tucceri directed questions to zoning board Solicitor James Mall, who could not be reached for comment.
Robert Lauer has three chickens in his Murrysville backyard.
“You don't even know we have them,” said Lauer, adding that the chicken coop only was discovered by a code-enforcement officer after the municipality received a complaint about his fire pit.
“Technically, you're not supposed to have them, which is ridiculous since dogs are way more of a nuisance than the chickens,” said Lauer, who has two dogs. “They'll run the whole yard and bark at everybody. They're probably 20 times more of a nuisance than the chickens are.”
In Murrysville, residents must have at least 10 acres to keep chickens, chief administrator James Morrison said.
Planning commission members there recently considered changing the law, but leaders opted not to move forward with the legislation, Morrison said.
It isn't the first time the issue has come up. Morrison said about every five years, Murrysville leaders consider altering the law.
Lauer said he doesn't agree with the municipality considering chickens livestock.
“Really, they're poultry,” he said. “Livestock is horses and cows and pigs. I can understand needing 10 acres for those types of animals but not for chickens. It's ridiculous.
“It's crazy because Murrysville was a little farm town at one time.”
The chickens initially were Easter gifts for his children about three years ago.
Soon after, Lauer said, he and his family decided to raise them for their eggs.
As some neighbors share zucchini, tomatoes and other homegrown vegetables, Lauer said, he shares his sometimes overabundance of eggs with those who live nearby.
“In three days, you get a dozen eggs,” he said. “You can't just keep eating eggs, so we give some to the neighbors.”
Lauer created the chicken coop from leftover wood from a shed he built, he said.
While Lauer's coop is subtle — brown with white-painted trim and tucked underneath a deck behind several bushes and trees — some chickens are living the high life with designer coops complete with solar panels and automatic timers.
San Francisco-based kitchen and home design retailer Williams-Sonoma launched an agrarian line featuring designer chicken coops.
“We're selling them from Seattle to Boston to Florida,” Allison O'Connor, vice president of merchandising, told the Associated Press.
“Having farm fresh eggs is a new experience for a great many people. People are looking at chickens more as family pets — as extensions of their family.”
While some communities have an outright ban on raising chickens and others aren't sure how to regulate them, Sewickley residents are permitted to keep the fowl in backyards, borough Manager Kevin Flannery said.
Borough residents rarely complain to officials about chickens, he said.
Residents and borough leaders know about them “only when the chickens get out and run the neighborhood,” Flannery said.
He wasn't sure how many residents keep chickens in the community of roughly 3,800.
While residents in Pittsburgh are permitted to have chickens, Jana Thompson said a nearly $300 permit keeps many from considering raising them.
The laws there forced chicken coop keepers “underground,” said Thompson, who serves as president of Pittsburgh Pro-Poultry People — a grassroots group supporting urban chicken keeping.
“There's always been chickens” in backyards, Thompson said. “There are more of them as people get more worried about their food safety.”
Thompson said she estimates there could be anywhere from 200 to 300 coops within city limits but added that the number might be on the conservative side.
Her group's website and Facebook group gets hits from suburban residents wanting to know the rules for their jurisdiction,” Thompson said.
In suburban communities where there is specific legislation against chickens, Thompson said, it often has grown out of a reaction against a hoarder situation in the past.
“So they made the rules to have no chickens,” she said.
Bobby Cherry is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-324-1408 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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