On Wednesday, Feb. 6, Pauline Schneider, a Katonah resident for 18 years, found herself in the awkward position of pleading her case to raise chickens in her back yard. She was before the members of the Bedford Zoning Board of Appeals, who had already said they couldn’t help as an array of concerned neighbors claimed that her flock of four chickens has led to a flood of rats in the South Road neighborhood.
“The laws restricting local backyard food production for the family is something relatively new to this country and something that does need to be corrected,” said Ms. Schneider, who bought a mobile chicken coop last summer. “A point of fact: New York City, a very congested and densely populated area with no open areas except for parks, does not restrict the keeping of backyard pens. Brooklyn has many coops, even on rooftops.”
Ms. Schneider could face up to a $250-per-day fine for raising four chickens on her quarter-acre property—the town of Bedford permits residents to own up to 12 chickens on a minimum of a half-acre residential property. She was told to remove the chickens by Dec. 16, but because the Bedford Zoning Board of Appeals had only three of five board members at her appeal on Feb. 6, she has been able to extend her appeal to April 3, when a full board will be present.
Ms. Schneider’s original request was for a variance to allow her to raise chickens on her quarter-acre property, just shy of the permitted half-acre regulation. The requested variance is a difficult one to obtain and one that would require proof of financial hardship incurred by the loss of the chickens, said Peter Michaelis, chairperson of the Bedford Zoning Board of Appeals.
“The way I interpret that is that you couldn’t sell your house at a reasonable price unless it comes with the chickens, and I can’t see making that connection,” he said.
Chicken feed is a notorious attractant for vermin and is listed as part of the few stipulations in Bedford’s town code for permitting the raising of chickens. Along with the prohibition of roosters, requirements for airtight and vermin-proof feed containers are standard for most municipalities that allow residents to raise chickens, a rule Ms. Schneider said she carefully follows.
But this has done little to assuage her neighbors, who spoke one after the other on Feb. 6, detailing how Ms. Schneider’s chickens and the excess feed they leave on the ground has attracted rats to the neighborhood.
“Over the course of May to December I caught the better part of 15 rats, large Norway rats, not small ones, not mice, not field mice, big disgusting rats, the kind you find in New York City,” Dave Lyness said.
Mr. Lyness’s property abuts Ms. Schneider’s, and he said he has been battling the rats since Ms. Schneider began raising chickens. Growing up on a 130-acre farm in New Jersey, raising produce and livestock (including chickens), Mr. Lyness said, he is no stranger to the problems that come with raising poultry.
“Rats are directly correlated to chickens and chicken feed,” he said. “Where the feed is, the rats are; they go hand in hand.”
After repeated attempts to discuss the issue with Ms. Schneider and a failure to see eye to eye on the root of the problem, Mr. Lyness said, he took matters into his own hands. Concerned for the safety of his children, he distributed rat poison across his property as a last resort, something he had hoped to avoid, citing the number of children and pets in the neighborhood.
Members of the Zoning Board questioned whether Mr. Lyness’s garden, which he claimed saw “bountiful harvests,” could have also contributed to the rat presence. He conceded it could have played a side role, but said “rats need more than just vegetables to live on. Vegetables are just a side meal.”
Three other neighbors also described experiences of catching rats and attributed them to Ms. Schneider’s chickens. An additional neighbor in opposition to the chickens noted she had not seen any rats but was more concerned with rat poison and potential salmonella exposure.
A 45-year resident said at the meeting that she recently saw two rats for the first time in her home and has noticed an abundance of mice lately, having never seen them before in her time in Katonah. She feared for her grandchildren’s safety, she said, as rodents are known to carry disease and can bite.
“With my bare hands in the middle of the night I have caught eight rats since August until December,” Bryan Hodge said. “It’s to the point where I’m petrified to go in my garage at night.”
Mr. Hodge has lived in Katonah since 2006 and said that in the last year he has noticed holes chewed through heavy-duty garbage bins in his garage. While Mr. Hodge admits that he has seen a rodent or two before, he said that he had never before seen the damage done in his garage, which includes a $500 baby stroller that had the seat chewed out, a discovery he and his wife made, along with rat feces, while having a stroll with their child. A supporter of sustainability, he, too, keeps a small garden on his property, but concerns for his family’s safety have outweighed his support, he said, with particular concerns regarding the rat poison some neighbors may be using.
Chickens and correlation
“There were always a couple rats running around my yard,” said Michele DuRivage. “There was no reason, no food, there was nothing.”
Ms. DuRivage currently lives in Goldens Bridge and formerly lived in the South Road area of Katonah for three years. She often saw rats in the neighborhood long before Ms. Schneider began raising chickens, she said.
“The rats are here anyway,” she said.
Shining a wider light on the issue, Zak Shusterman, a lawyer from Sleepy Hollow and a backyard chicken enthusiast, suggested there may be a disconnect between cause and affect.
“You can live very densely with chickens and it is not a problem,” he said. “Nobody is denying the rats are there, but I would be careful to assume they are being caused by this small flock of chickens. It could be something else going on. You can go to other communities throughout Westchester that allow chickens on smaller lots and you don’t have this rat problem. It is not an automatic problem.”
The laws in Sleepy Hollow are discretionary and rely on quality-of-living standards rather than pure acreage, he said. As long as there no nuisances experienced by neighbors, the residents are permitted to raise chickens.
Mr. Shusterman lives on an eighth-of-an-acre property in Sleepy Hollow and cited a number of residents in the area who also have chickens but have never had issues with vermin. His backyard chickens have been observed by delegations from Ossining and Yonkers to inform changes being considered to town codes. Both delegations had positive responses to his chickens and positively informed their recomendations, he said.
Along with Ms. Schneider, he pointed out a number of factors that can contribute to a rat presence: vegetable gardens, bodies of water, drought, bird feeders, and exposed outdoor pet bowls, all of which are present in the South Road neighborhood.
“It is a community issue; everybody has a hand in this,” Ms. Schneider said. “Not everyone wants chickens, just like not everyone wants dogs or cats. But for those of us who do, it is our human right to reclaim the ability to keep chickens whose eggs are perhaps the most nutrient-rich food and the most easy to control for safety.”
The public hearing remains open for her appeal until the April 3 meeting, but Ms. Schneider has said that she may move on to the Planning Board or Town Board to have the code itself amended rather than seek a variance.
The Zoning Board recommended that the discussion may be better suited for a public discussion with the Town Board.