WESTFIELD, NJ — Residents here may soon be permitted to raise backyard hens, but they shouldn’t scramble to build coops just yet.
While raising chickens has become an increasingly popular hobby for consumers seeking organic eggs, the existing regulations in Westfield prohibit keeping live chickens. It is a local law that town officials are taking a second look at.
“I'm really not sure yet when and if it will come before council,” said Councilwoman Dawn Mackey, who chairs the code review committee and cited “lots of interest from residents who would like to have the option.”
Despite the longstanding local prohibition for raising fowl, Mackey said, some folks in Westfield already maintain live poultry. “There are people who have been grandfathered in,” she said. Although consideration of the new rules, Mackey said, has not been driven from neighbors’ complaints.
Earlier this month, the Westfield Board of Health reviewed a draft of regulations concerning backyard hens.
“Several of the communities have chicken ordinances,” said Megan Avallone, director of the Westfield Regional Health Department, which services eight municipalities, including Westfield. “A few of my towns have looked recently at the possibility of regulating backyard chickens.”
The health department would be responsible for inspecting would-be chicken coups, Avallone said.
The regulation Westfield is considering may include a provision that new chicken owners obtain their neighbors’ permission, officials said at the health board meeting.
With the ordinance still in committee the specific regulations that would come with raising backyard hens in Westfield have yet to be made public.
“This draft ordinance hasn’t been brought to the town council,” said Councilman Michael Dardia, the council’s liaison to the Board of Health. “It’s in code review.”
Raising Fowl Around Westfield
Other municipalities handle live poultry in a variety of ways.
Cranford allows fowl on farms but only if they are “incidental to the major agricultural activity.”
In 2018, Scotch Plains approved a local law providing provisions for raising backyard hens. The regulation requires an annual license from the health department, limits hen raisers to six chickens and requires the live poultry be provided a “suitable house or coop with an enclosed runway.”
A 2019 update to Summit’s local laws allow for “the addition of accessory agricultural usages for bee-keeping and chickens.”
After extensive debate Millburn Township, located in Essex County, recently allowed for the raising of backyard hens. The application fee is $100. The inspection fee is $65. Coups must be 20 feet from a property line. The town does not allow for roosters.
After hearing a resident’s tearful plea in 2011, Maplewood’s Township Committee agreed to test drive a program that initially permitted up to 15 homes in five different neighborhoods to each keep a maximum of five chickens.
Board of Health President Lawrence Budnick, a doctor of occupational medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, raised concern about chickens transmitting salmonella to people. Budnick said that during his time working for the New York State Health Department he investigated a chicken-sourced salmonella outbreak that killed 11 people.
“I had the ‘good’ fortune of having to investigate salmonella in chickens,” Budnick said. “It is a real thing.”
A 2017 New York Times report on the topic points out the deadly danger but notes that most people who contract salmonella recover without treatment after a few day of diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps. The report also pointed to the health benefits of organic eggs.
Board of Health member Elizabeth Talmont told the board she may herself try out backyard hen raising if the local regulation is approved.
“I may trust the chickens in my own backyard more than I might in some of these big farms,” Talmont said, then added: “I may be one of your first chicken pilot people.”
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