Family fights city hen ban
Published on 11/14/2010 by the Daily Gazette written by by SARA FOSS, Gazette Reporter
The first word out of Michael Guidice and Jen Pursley's 16-month-old son's mouth was "chi-chen."
The boy has been growing up around chickens, despite living in a dense urban environment. That's because his parents, who live in Albany's Mansion Neighborhood, have had a small backyard flock for about eight years. But about a week and a half ago the city of Albany's Division of Building and Codes informed the couple that they were violating an ordinance that bars residents from owning farm animals.
In response, Guidice and Pursley moved their chickens up the street to the Albany Free School, a small, alternative private school that has been keeping chickens since the 1970s; city law allows people who use chickens for educational purposes to seek a zoning variance allowing them to keep the birds.
Guidice said the appeal of chickens is simple. "We get eggs. Our kids are connected to our food source. It's fun. It's a hobby. It's a way to increase sustainability."
Now Guidice and Pursley want to change the city's chicken law.
They have the support of their representative on the city's Common Council, Dominick Calsolaro, who plans to present legislation at the Dec. 6 meeting that would allow residents to own hens.
Calsolaro's legislation would be restricted to hens; roosters are considered too noisy for urban life. People who wish to own hens would be required to apply for a permit through the city clerk and inform all property owners and residents within 50 feet of the property where chickens are to be kept.
Hens would be kept in pens to prevent the birds from escaping and roaming at large.
In a memo supporting his legislation, Calsolaro wrote that the keeping of hens "supports a local, sustainable food system by providing an affordable, nutritious source of protein through fresh eggs," while also providing "free, quality, nitrogen-rich fertilizer; chemical-free pest control; animal companionship and pleasure; weed control; and less noise, mess and expense than dogs and cats."
Right now, Guidice and Pursley have eight hens.
Though the number they own varies, he said they've never owned more than 10. And they've never kept roosters.
"I've been raising chickens for about eight years without insult or injury," Guidice said.
Guidice said that he and Pursley are fighting for more than the right to own chickens.
Because the couple's chickens are sometimes used by Youth Organics, a program that teaches children to garden, Guidice believes he and Pursley could have received an educational variance for the birds, had they pursued one. But instead they decided to turn their chicken situation into a larger cause.
"Jen and I thought, 'This is a great issue,' " Guidice said. " 'Why not make it so other people can own chickens, too?' We decided to try to get the law changed for the city. " It's a great small step that could make people more self-sufficient."
Guidice and Pursley live near Scott Kellogg and Stacy Pettigrew, an Albany couple who wrote a book titled "Toolbox for Sustainable City Living."
The book aims to teach city dwellers to garden, compost and manage waste, despite limited access to sun and land, and Kellogg described Albany's chicken ban as a legal obstacle that makes it difficult for residents to be self-reliant.
"As of now, the law states that urban livestock is incompatible with urban life," Kellogg said. "That's silly. Establishing food security and a locally based sustainable economy involves small livestock -- what I call micro-livestock."
Albany's law, Kellogg said, "is a relic of a bygone era. People used to think of cities and rural areas as being distinct from each other. But now there are vast urban gardens and an urban farming movement. If Albany wants to portray itself as progressive and green, it needs to get on board with this stuff."
"In Albany, the issue of urban sustainability is at the crux of young people wanting to live in and stay in the city," Guidice said.
Kellogg and Pettigrew are working to build the Radix Ecological Sustainability Center, a non-profit educational organization that will teach people how to live sustainably in the city. Classes will focus on topics such as composting, aquaculture -- raising aquatic plants and animals in a closed loop nutrient recycling system -- and how to collect rainwater for irrigation.
The center, which will be at the intersection of Grand and Warren streets, will feature a greenhouse, as well as chickens, goats and fish. Because the center has an educational purpose, it is permitted to have animals.
Calsolaro said he hopes his proposal to lift the ban on chickens will spur a larger discussion about sustainability in the city of Albany. "That seems to be the way more progressive cities are moving," he said. "It seems like more urban areas are letting residents keep hens now. " If we don't put things like this out there, we'll never get the discussion going."
The law barring Albany homeowners from keeping chickens was passed by the Common Council in 2001 in response to complaints about a noisy rooster in the Pine Hills neighborhood. Under the law, "no person shall keep, harbor, or shelter any farm animal or fowl within the city of Albany. For purposes of this article, farm animal or fowl shall include cows, cattle, horses, ponies, donkeys, mules, pigs, goats, sheep, chickens, ducks, geese or other animals or fowl usually known as 'farm animals or fowl,' but not solely limited to the aforementioned and not including common household pets."
Other cities, such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York City and Buffalo, have laws permitting residents to own chickens under certain circumstances.
The legislation Calsolaro is preparing is based on an ordinance in Portland, Ore.
Not everyone supports allowing chickens in the city. Calsolaro said one individual suggested that the city already has enough animals.
Calsolaro has also proposed legislation that would mandate the separation of organic waste such as food scraps from trash and have it taken to a composting facility.
He said that raising hens and composting are not exactly new ideas. "We used to separate food scraps from the trash. The ragman would come and collect old clothes. Now we're making it look like you're being progressive because you reuse stuff. But we're really going back to the way things were."
Troy allows residents to own chickens. But Schenectady does not. The city bars "the raising of livestock, poultry or other objectionable farming activities."
In recent years, newspapers such as the Washington Post have run stories pointing to a backyard chicken trend; in a Washington Post story from May 2009, Dave Belanger, publisher of the magazine Backyard Poultry, said that "chickens are America's cool new pet."
But Jack Shafer, the press critic from Slate.com, has suggested that raising backyard chickens is a "bogus trend" hyped by the media even though actual statistics are lacking.
Edition: Schenectady/Albany; FinalSection: BPage: B1Column: ALBANY
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