Of government and chickens

albany common council law committee chickens

The Albany Common Council law committee's meeting on backyard chickens last month.

By Martin Daley

soapbox badgeAll my life I've tried to steer as clear as possible from the political arena. But, the older I get, the more I see how government makes a difference in my everyday life. It would seem that politics has found me.

There's an old saying that laws are a lot like sausages -- no one wants to see how they're made. Sadly, I'm finding out just how true that saying is. The more I get involved in local government, the more frustrated I am.

I must admit, chickens were all my wife's idea. But the more I learned about how wonderful backyard hens can be, the more I warmed to the thought of having some. Five or six backyard hens will lay about a dozen eggs a week. They can eat table scraps. They eat insects that would otherwise be pests (ticks, grubs, etc.). Their excrement makes great garden fertilizer. Hens are resilient, hearty animals that are docile, inexpensive to take care of, and don't require a large amount of land to happily roam.

We were dismayed to learn that Albany had, years ago, banned all livestock -- including chickens -- from the city. We simply accepted the fact we'd never get chickens, thinking there was nothing we could do. Until happy coincidence stepped in. It seems Jen and I weren't the only people who wanted chickens! A good friend of ours, Mike Guidice, took the lead on working to change the law prohibiting micro-livestock. And we soon found that several hundred people agreed -- we should have the freedom to raise chickens! Suddenly there was hope!

Many cities across the US permit backyard chickens: Los Angeles, Portland, Baltimore, Austin, Chicago, Orlando, Las Vegas, Boston, and many more. Here in New York: Troy, Saratoga Springs, Bethlehem, Brooklyn, Buffalo, Beacon, Rochester, White Plains and others. So we're not going to Mars with radical ideas -- this isn't something new.

Last year, Albany launched an office of sustainability! The city already endorses composting and eating locally grown products. So chickens are a shoe-in, right? This city can put its money where its mouth is!

The "chicken coalition" was prepared for some of the negative reactions that are typical: "Chickens smell, they spread disease, they are loud, etc." These are not uncommon concerns, but they are, for the most part, not realistic and the "flock" of backyard chicken supporters has been able to dig up very well documented research that counters unsubstantiated claims that chickens are disease ridden pests that lower property values. In fact, data to support the raising of backyard hens is overwhelming.

I was feeling great about this initiative passing the Albany Common Council until it went before the council's law committee a few weeks ago. Remember that sausage quote? Yeah, things got really ugly, real fast. Some members, who didn't ask any questions, pledged to vote against the backyard hen ordinance, even after overwhelming evidence about the benefits were presented on more than one occasion. Three said the following:

"The city isn't responsible for health and safety."
"If we let this pass then we'll be encouraging cock fighting."
(The ordinance does not permit roosters. Roosters are used for cockfighting.)
"You give people an inch they take a mile. If the council passes this then we'll open the door for people to ask us to amend other laws."

Shocking, no?

But before you accuse me of taking this out of context, I've got to repeat -- these were comments by the elected officials who hold the keys to our freedoms and quality of life in this city. I will not name names to avoid ruffling more feathers and because I think it may be possible to get these folks to come around. Still, the same negative reactions kept coming up from the same people as the last chicken ordinance meeting -- "Do chickens spread disease?" "Will they affect property values?" "How can the city afford to manage this program?" But no matter how many times an answer was given, the detractors refused to reason. It was like watching a child ask "why" repeatedly.

The issue of property values came up several times. I have never, ever heard a council consider property values as vigorously as some did at that meeting. There are so many thousands of variables that affect the value of a home -- and some carry much greater weight than others. What is the neighborhood like? How much are my taxes going to be? How good are the schools? Is there a vacant home on the block? These are all questions a buyer will seek to answer long before they ask "Do any of my neighbors have a chicken coop?"

Has there been an epidemic over declining property values related to chickens in other cities? No. Buffalo passed its resolution last year. How many chicken related complaints have come to the city since? ZERO. How many in the Cedar Rapids, Iowa (pop 128,000) since it passed its law last year? Six -- most related to roosters. That non-news made the news there!

I'm trying to remind myself that the motivation behind the chicken opposition is directly due to fear. Because of that, I'm willing to accept the caveats of neighbor permission, a limit on the number of permits, and onerous building codes for a chicken coop. But the more I travel, the more I learn how simple it was for other cities to pass this type of law, and the more I talk to folks who live in these cities, the more embarrassed I am by my own.

spirit magazine backyard hens articleJen and I just got back from a week's vacation in Key West. About a million people pass through Key West each year from the mainland and cruise ship stops. Key West doesn't just allow backyard chickens, they don't make any bones about having chickens and roosters out roaming the streets. If there were ANY truth to the wild idea that chickens spread disease and death wherever they go, this burgeoning tourist attraction simply wouldn't exist.

As one final slap in the face to Albanians, on our way to Florida we noticed that the April cover story in Spirit, the Southwest Airlines in-flight magazine, is eggs -- and there was a feature about the benefits of backyard chickens. I had to read this flying back to my backwater hometown that can't get out from under its own weight to do something good. It was painful.

I've been told not get too worked up about such a small issue, but I can't help it. I'll entertain the belief that this backyard hen issue is a small thing, but if this is the way our city leaders handle well-thought out small issues, I am PETRIFIED about how they have and will deal with much larger ones.

If this thing doesn't fly I'll be really embarrassed to be from Albany.

Martin has a very appropriate username on Twitter: daleyplanit.

Comments

Yeah, the only thing worse than the state government in Albany is the Common Council. I'm not sure exactly why it even exists. And unlike state government, there is a majority party that should avoid gridlock.

Maybe you should name names. If we don't know which council members make such absurd statements or seem immune to reason then how are we to make informed decisions as voters. Further, how does this article wind up accomplishing anything other than bemoaning the fecklessness of local government unless you are willing to "ruffle feathers"?

Joe Igoe was a big one.

I'm disappointed. The way that list of reactions was going, I thought, "The children! We must think of the children!" was a shoe-in.

One of my neighbors has a coop (in Troy). I can go months without even noticing, and can't think a single negative it's brought to the neighborhood. Hopefully you'll be able to change their minds. I really don't see why they would be afraid of chickens, especially when the same people probably have a dog in their own back yard, and no reasonable person would ban that.

I mean, you can make a pretty good argument for barring all megafauna from human settlements but what's the point, really.

I think the urban chicken idea great, even if it's a fad.
But: c'mon! Bird feeders can be a menace if run by slobs/fools.

"..the more I learn how simple it was for other cities to pass this type of law.."

What? They let it happen with no debate? First time? Can you cite some lack of debate, or easiness, in other places?

Due diligence.

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