RANDOLPH, NJ - When Steven Riecker, Randolph resident of 18 years and chicken owner, discovered the township required three acres to raise chickens, but just one acre to own a horse, he asked the council to reconsider the current ordinance and make the township more “chicken friendly.”
Riecker sent an email to the council on Sept. 28 detailing his initial request, followed up with a formal letter on Sept. 29 and the discussion was placed on the Nov. 17 council agenda.
“Based on my informal research online and in the print media, I believe that chickens’ rising popularity as outdoor pets has caused many residents (and future residents) to seek a more family-friendly stance from the township as it relates to property size required to raise chicken,” Riecker states in the letter.
He began his presentation to the council with his own experience raising chickens on less than three acres of property.
“When my daughter was a senior over here at Randolph High, she got involved with sustainable agriculture as well as in organic farming,” Riecker explained. “Next thing you know, I have three baby chicks arrive at my house…. It was an accident for lack of a better word.”
Soon the family learned about the many predatory animals in Randolph, specifically raccoons, and lost all the chickens. After two years, Riecker and his daughter, Lauren, built a “more fortified coop,” and at this time a neighbor reported the situation to the township.
“My understanding of the situation has shifted slightly as I’ve continued to dig in and research what’s the concern here and possible solutions,” Riecker said.
During the council discussion, Riecker addressed the specific concerns of the council with suggestion for the revised ordinance, particularly the nuisance and vermin associated with chickens, and expressed the family benefits of raising the animals.
“In my opinion, showing kids where their food comes from… provides a wholesome family experience,” Riecker stated.
While allowing residents to keep chickens on one acre, Riecker suggested requiring permits for the structures and imposing several restrictions to maintain the quality of life in Randolph, such as required pest control measures, only allowing 10 chickens on less than three acres and absolutely no roosters.
“People move to Randolph to be closer to the outdoors,” said Riecker’s girlfriend, Karen Brown. “And to have options of possibly having chickens just completes the whole picture.”
Mayor Roman Hirniak asked why Riecker did not apply for a variance, and instead jumped to revising the ordinance.
Riecker responded that he felt owning chickens would be something more residents might enjoy and possibly cause more homeowners to move to Randolph. He wanted to make this improvement for the whole township.
However, the council agreed that this would be a case for a variance, not an ordinance overhaul.
Township Manager Stephen Mountain explained that the current variance process now protects the neighbors, ensuring that the township hears their concerns about changes in the neighborhood. Removing the variance process would take away that opportunity.
“Certainly what you hear tonight is a group of people who are passionate about this issue and who I think want to do it the right way.” Mountain said. “Unfortunately, we see the full spectrum of any activity, and sometimes we don’t have people doing things the right way,”
Other council members mentioned that predatory animals are a big issue in Randolph, and they are working to decrease that risk.
“We recently passed an ordinance banning the feeding of wild animals on private property, and one of the reasons for that was… we were trying to keep wild animals out of people’s back yards. Bears, deer, coyotes, raccoons, fox, we have a lot of wild animals around here,” said Councilman Mark Fostenhausler. “Mr. Riecker did mention he had some chickens eaten by foxes and raccoons, which is understandable because that’s what they do.”
“I also believe that a variance is the right way to go,” began Councilwoman Joanne Veech. “You’re a very caring person, you’re building it to spec, but we can’t take that approach with 5500 other one-acre properties. Add to that the people who get chicks for Easter, and the next thing you know we have all kinds of issues with people who don’t take good care.”
“We don’t have enforcement available to us, to license chickens, and if we do what you’re suggesting, someone will have to go out and check all the time,” Veech added. “We try to keep government small, because we try to keep taxes down.”
Hirniak concluded the discussion by advising Riecker to move forward with a variance, but also seek advice from the Board of Health. With their professional input, the variance process for this type of permit could possibly be simplified.