MAHOPAC, N.Y. - Mahopac resident Robert Lena hopes the Town Board won’t be chicken when it comes to amending its zoning code.
Lena wants the board to rewrite the law so the town is more amenable to residents who want to keep chickens on their properties.
As it currently stands, the Carmel zoning code limits raising chickens to working farms. Chapter 156-17, section A, of the code states “Farms, truck gardens, nurseries and other agricultural activities shall be permitted as principal uses, provided that: (1) the site size shall be at least 5 acres…(2) No building or structure used for any of the above purposes shall be located closer than 100 feet to any property line. Pens or buildings housing animals or runs shall be located a minimum 150 feet from any property lines.”
Lena would like those parameters changed so more homeowners would be eligible to keep the birds.
“I am sure there are a bunch of 5-acre farms out there, but most who are into raising poultry [don’t have that much land],” he said.
While waiting for his home on Agor Lane to be built, Lena had chickens while living in Putnam Valley, where it’s legal.
“At most, we had 10 birds; we’re not chicken farmers,” he said. “We had them for pest control, for eggs, and for the children,” he said. “They are really easy to take care off and they teach the kids responsibility.”
When Lena moved to Mahopac in 2010, he brought his chickens with him. Then, in May, he received a notice of violation from the code enforcement officer telling him his chickens must fly the coop.
“To be honest, it never occurred that I should or should not be allowed [to keep chickens]; that it could possibly be illegal,” Lena said. “I was very surprised. I talked to Mike Carnazza (director of code enforcement) and he explained the ordinance to me and showed why it would be illegal.”
So Lena did what anyone would do if they wanted to instigate change and start a mini revolution: he created a Facebook page.
“I started a Facebook group and a petition to see who liked the idea and if I even had a leg to stand on,” he said.
His petition on Change.org has already garnered nearly 140 signatures and met with town council members Suzi McDonough and Jonathan Schneider last week to present the petition and plead his case.
His Facebook group, Backyard Chickens in Mahopac/Carmel, has provided him with some positive feedback indicating that people would support the idea.
“I think most people are OK with it. Most didn’t even know it was illegal,” he said. “We live in a place that is historically a farm community and most think I should be able to have them as long as am not bothering you.”
Lena points out that neighboring communities such as Putnam Valley and Yorktown have code guidelines that allow for chickens in residential neighborhoods—there are just certain parameters that must be followed, such as no roosters allowed and the number of chickens must be limited.
“No one wants someone to raise 350 chickens,” he said, “but there is a happy medium.”
Lena also notes there is a trend toward more farm-to-table cooking (those who adhere to buying locally produced meat, dairy and produce are known as locavores) and that keeping chickens is environmentally sound.
“What is more local than eggs from your own backyard? There is a big movement on it right now,” he said. “And for vegans, it’s a more ethical ways to eat eggs. My chickens eat like princes.”
Lena also argues that having chickens is no different than having cats or dogs.
“It’s about responsible people using common sense,” he said. “If they do, there won’t be an issue.”
Many of the people who signed Lena’s Change.org petition echoed his sentiments.
“I get to control the organic diet of the animal,” said Eduardo Gonzalez of Mahopac Falls. “I know it’s a purely organic diet without the antibiotics and hormones that the food industry adds. They will be kept and cared for in a humane environment, not a laboratory. This also allows our children to learn about the animals, environment, and responsibilities of caring for animals that produce for us.”
Nancy Tadler said keeping chickens is a healthy alternative to buying poultry and dairy products in a store.
“This is the country not New York City,” she said. “Raise your own chickens and prevent cancer by limiting exposure to GMOs in purchased foods.”
Carolyn Svoboda of Mahopac notes that there are a plethora of benefits to keeping chickens. She said they are friendly pets with educational value for children and provide “food security” for families, not to mention the environmental benefits.
“They lay healthier eggs—hens still lay eggs without a rooster, many people don’t know that,” she said. “They give gardeners high-quality fertilizer. They control flies and other pests and they dispose of weeds and kitchen scraps that otherwise might wind up in the landfill.”
Councilman Schneider said he likes the idea in theory and at one time wanted to raise chickens himself, though his wife vetoed the idea.
“I tried convincing my wife we should have chickens,” he said. “She is very holistic. She had chickens growing up and she knew the responsibility that it involves, which is why she said no.”
Schneider said if the town can create a law that reflects those responsibilities, he would be in favor of it.
“You don’t have to worry about how [the chickens] are treated. It’s a much more natural way,” he said. “But we would need to make sure it’s a responsible code. This is something we knew was on the radar and now it will be brought into the public domain. There are a lot of people who are trying to go more organic with things like home gardening and composting. We saw this coming and now we need to address it.”
Councilman McDonough said the Town Board will have to do its due diligence and conduct some research before a new code can be created.
“We will look at other codes in the area and see what is working for them,” she said. “We don’t want to reinvent the wheel. I don’t know too much about chickens; I need to know the pros and cons and find out if we can do it. I love organic stuff so if it’s doable we can do it but we have to do our homework and find out the hurdles. You want to make sure the entire community can live in harmony. I am willing to listen to anyone who has issues with codes who would like to see them changed or amended.”