Old laws are colliding with new practices in communities, particularly in Westchester County and urban areas, where old traditions of sustainable and low-scale agriculture are being re-embraced by everyday people.
When resources were scarce during the World Wars and as part of the war effort, victory gardens sprouted up all over residential areas. Now new factors are provoking amateur farmers to raise their own food, among them a growing awareness of the waste, abuse, poor quality, and unsustainable nature of mass production farming.
“Increasingly in this time of economic distress, a risky food system, changing diets, and the push to locally source food, many people are adopting more sustainable lifestyles, becoming locavores [consuming from only local sources], shopping at local farmers’ markets and even growing and raising their own food, both as a hobby and as a personal lifestyle choice,” Pauline Schneider said. “There is something uniquely American in raising your own food, being independent and free to do so regardless of one’s wealth.”
Ms. Schneider has lived in Katonah for 18 years and has wanted to raise chickens for decades, she said. This past summer she acted on the long-held desire and bought a mobile chicken coop and four chickens from a local Katonah vendor who not only designs, installs and services the coops but also sells chickens.
On Nov. 16, she received a written notice from the town of Bedford’s code enforcement officer that her four spring-hatched hens were breaking town code because she does not reside in a half-acre or more zoning area. Her zone is only one-quarter acre. She faces up to a $250 fine if she does not remove the chickens by Dec. 16, she said.
“The arbitrary nature of Bedford’s regulation is obvious at first glance, since it seems to be based neither on math, i.e., so many hens per square footage, nor on actual nuisance issues, rodents, smell, flies, noise,” she said.
Pushing for change
As a core member of Transition Westchester, a regional branch of an international sustainable living movement, Ms. Schneider is leading a charge to reform the regulations and inspire people in surrounding communities and beyond to do the same. Along with chicken-raising enthusiasts from throughout the region, as well as Lewisboro community members, Transition Westchester is presenting In Transition 2.0, a short documentary on Transition communities around the world creating innovative, sustainable living practices. It will be shown at the Goldens Bridge Community House (Parks & Recreation office) at 4:30 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 2.
“People are waking up slowly, but it is happening,” she said. “Chickens are a small part of this patchwork of sustainability, but they have a very important role. They not only provide food and fertilizer for gardens, they provide the biological non-toxic control for pests in the garden, especially for grubs, which are devastating.”
There is a mental health aspect similar to that of having pets that is an extra benefit, she added.
“Back in the 50s we changed from a more agrarian to a more suburban, mini golf course, landscaped lawn society,” Ms. Schneider said. “We have poured tons of chemicals, fertilizers and pesticides on our lawns, basically poisoned our landscape. One of the ways to bring it back to life is to put actual living creatures back on it.”
Specifically, she would like to see laws regarding the raising of chickens reflect a policy closer to that of New York City than the ones currently on the books in this area. New York City does not specify a number of chickens that may be raised or the amount of land needed. Instead, it focuses on a quality-of-life approach that restricts roosters, and specifies that regardless of the number of chickens, they must be kept in clean and safe conditions so that they do not become a nuisance to the community.
What’s on the books
In Lewisboro the current law states that no more than five chickens are permitted per acre, with no specifications for property under an acre. Noisy birds, such as roosters, are not permitted, and a main requirement for most communities that permit the raising of chickens and other farm animals is that the feed be kept in a secure container, out of the reach of pests and vermin.
Changing from farms and crops to contemporary styled homes on finely manicured properties has resulted in a shift of aesthetic values, with clotheslines and free-roaming chickens no longer acceptable sights in many communities. While Ms. Schneider said she has never received a complaint about a clothesline, she has received a complaint about her chickens, which she said was odd, considering the long-standing and good relationships she has with neighbors.
Bedford Town Code Enforcement Officer William O’Keefe said the town became aware of Ms. Schneider’s chickens after a resident complained of seeing an increased number of rats in the area.
“What happens is that when you throw chicken feed down on a small area like a quarter-acre, rats can come in to finish what is left,” he said.
Ms. Schneider has received a tidal wave of support, with many people offering to care for her chickens while she pursues a variance for her property, she said. As the deadline for removing the chickens looms, she is taking into consideration her sizeable investment. At $30 per bird and $3,000 for the solar-powered, electric-fenced mobile chicken coop, continuing to raise her chickens is very important to her, she said.
“There is a very, very old saying — ‘The law was made for man, not man for the law,'” she said. “If they can do it in New York City in a highly congested area where people don’t have acres, so can we.”