Chickens and the Law

By McGRATH, Matthew | The Record (Bergen County, NJ), February 13, 2012 | Go to article overview

Chickens and the Law


McGRATH, Matthew, The Record (Bergen County, NJ)


Victor Alfieri sees himself as a neighborhood leader in a global campaign to raise food locally. The fruits and vegetables he grows on his quarter-acre in Wayne lasts his family year-round. But his desire to keep egg-laying hens in his back yard has met with a strict local prohibition.

Alfieri would need seven times more land -- a small farm, he says -- just to have a couple dozen chickens under Wayne's poultry laws. He has three hens living illegally at his place now and wants permission to keep many more. He vows to campaign to repeal the ordinance.

There's recent precedent for overturning anti-chicken ordinances in New Jersey, and there's gathering support for Alfieri and his birds around town and beyond.

Across North Jersey, backyard fowl are governed by a patchwork of rules, from limited restrictions in affluent Alpine and blue-collar Totowa to outright bans in urban Paterson. Paramus permits hens, but not noisy, combative roosters.

Wayne officials could not say exactly when the law on backyard chickens took effect or why it was necessary. Yet some council members who may decide on Alfieri's plea to ease restrictions aren't convinced the law needs changing, even as the mayor and township environment commission urge that it be amended.

Alfieri said he raises 2,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables in his garden each year and that his three outlaw chickens lay about 300 eggs a year. By rolling back the restriction on backyard coops, he said, Wayne would encourage a plentiful hyper-local source of protein and create a benefit for the township through license fees.

Noise and smell are the most common neighborhood complaints about chickens, said Elaine Fogerty, the Passaic County agriculture assistant at the Rutgers University Cooperative Extension. But while roosters crow and cackle, hens make little noise, she said, and chicken manure is easily managed.

Paterson 'not a farm'

Several municipalities ban yard fowl outright, including Teaneck, although the council made an exception to its 1998 livestock ban for one family that had raised chickens on its homestead for 25 years.

Paterson banned roosters and hens in 1979. "We're not a farm," said John DeCando Sr., Paterson's chief animal control officer. "It becomes a health issue."

DeCando said he has specific concerns about fleas and ticks, and many towns that permit chickens have detailed requirements on handling chicken manure and the cleanliness of coops.

Franklin Lakes, Wayne's neighbor, takes a more permissive view, allowing residents -- who need to get a license -- to have one bird for every 1.5 square feet of land. Seven households are licensed for chickens, and an eighth applied for a license Wednesday, borough officials said.

The Township Council in Maplewood, an Essex County suburb, last fall approved a pilot program through which 15 licenses to raise hens would be granted to residents through a lottery. The program begins in March.

Fred Profecta, who was deputy mayor when the program was approved, said Maplewood residents objected that backyard coops would damage the town's settled atmosphere and attract vermin. Profecta, former chairman of Sustainable Jersey, which encourages towns to use "green" methods to conserve energy, said he thinks people leaving food out for stray cats attracts more rodents than chicken coops and he doubts a few backyard hens would cause property values to plummet. …

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