In 2011, young Erich Gittler won over Collingswood borough commissioners with his well-researched proposal (and homemade cookies) in favor of bringing pet chickens to town, either in the form of backyard coops or as part of a community-wide project.
Although they admired his pluck, officials took a pass on the idea.
Then, in the 2013 Collingswood municipal elections, the subject of chicken-raising came up at a town forum, meeting with looks of I-can't-believe-we're-talking-about-this-again from candidates and some members of the audience.
Now, in a community next door, Haddon Township resident and Camden County master gardener Gwenne Baile is leading a pitch for her elected officials to reconsider their approach to backyard chickens.
If she is successful, Baile hopes, she might be able to establish a test case for chicken-raising that other nearby communities could embrace.
A national movement
Baile says that the chicken issue is “really pretty much a national thing” that isn’t just confined to the tri-state area.
She believes the roots of the movement are anchored in the desires of residents to have greater knowledge about the origins of the foods they eat.
“We’re just getting more and more skeptical about this huge agricultural conglomerate,” Baile says.
As opposed to the factory farming environments in which most egg-producing poultry is cultivated, Baile says, smaller-scale agricultural interests are more sustainable, more humane, less expensive to maintain, and produce food that isn’t genetically modified.
By re-classifying chickens as pets, municipal governments could work in a licensing and oversight system that would allow homeowners to take greater control of their personal food supply, sell off or donate extra food to needy neighbors, and shave valuable dollars off their grocery budgets.
In an immediate, seven-town area where residents have no fewer than three opportunities to visit local farmers markets in a given week, Baile believes that there’s enough of an appetite for things to change.
Backyard chickens, front yard gardens
“Of Backyard Chickens and Front Yard Gardens,” a 2012 article on the locavore movement—eating food grown close to home—takes on some of the entrenched ideas behind local ordinances that prevent suburban farming.
Its author, Sarah Schindler, points out that American colonists were all subsistence farmers, a practice revived during the Victory Garden days of World War II.
Yet “the conflict between agriculture and residential uses” of land turns on local nuisance laws, which have traditionally been written to protect suburban home-owners, she writes.
“Restrictions developed not just because of the perception that agricultural uses caused specific harms but also because of a cultural sense that agricultural (and industrial) use was not socially appropriate in the vicinity of homes and families,” Schindler says.
By “allowing free and open use of an individual’s private property,” chicken-raisers may even produce a surplus of food that could be donated to a community garden or resold.
"Unless zoning laws change to reflect contemporary views of health, safety, and community values, property ownership becomes dysfunctional," Schindler argues.
"Thus a movement toward
more beneficial property uses protects the utility of property in a
The new little black dress
To Baile, much of the established tradition behind outlawing suburban chicken-rearing is rooted in aesthetics.
She talks about how the image of the chicken coop is commonly associated with poverty, to which people in suburban communities have a knee-jerk, negative reaction.
But as the backyard chicken movement has gathered steam, Baile says, companies like Williams Sonoma have jumped aboard, retailing “a chicken coop you would die for that costs about two grand.
“They’re nicknaming it 'the current little black dress',” she says.
Baile, who says having a (rooster-free) chicken coop is “no different than having a doghouse in your backyard,” believes chickens provide additional value to their caretakers besides the eggs they lay.
“They eat all kinds of insects,” she says, “mosquitos, ticks, grubs; they also eat vegetable scraps from the yard.
“They make phenomenal chicken manure, which only takes a couple of weeks; you can’t use dog and cat poop in fertilizer because of the parasites,” Baile says.
“You have to take care of them, but you also have to pick up after your dog.”
“I think you’ve got a new generation moving into town, and many of them want more natural things for their families, and there may be some interesting things occurring because of that,” says Mary Ellen Ries, Zoning and Code Enforcement Officer for the borough of Collingswood.
But from an enforcement point of view, Ries says that raising livestock comes with a whole different set of issues.
Collingswood borough code (105:59-62) prohibits the keeping of fowls and livestock, including “any chicken, turkey, goose, duck, emu, ostrich, or any other fowl customarily found on a farm, and pigeons” as well as “any bull, cow, calf, heifer, sheep, llama, goat, horse, pony, swine.”
Fines for violating this ordinance currently max out at $500, and Ries says she’s had more than a couple of prior experiences with chickens and guinea hens in the borough previously.
“Basically the biggest complaint is noise because they’re up early,” Ries says; “earlier than we are.
“I think that there’s a feeling that when you move into a property in a town such as this, there’s not an expectation to be living near farm animals,” she says.
“We feel that at present, the majority of people in Collingswood do not want to be living near chickens.”
Demand drives value
But could backyard chickens actually negatively affect homeowners’ property values?
Pat Ciervo of Main Street Realty in Collingswood says he doesn’t have a lot of familiarity with the subject, but that he couldn’t recall having seen backyard chickens before at a home he's shown.
“I think what creates value for anything is demand,” Ciervo says, and Collingswood home values traditionally have been determined by amenities such as the town park, its proximity to mass transit, and its walkable downtown.
“While they’re here [homeowners] might want a house that’s more energy efficient, or that they can put solar panels up,” he says, but that's about as green as most homebuyers go in terms of making long-term, environmentally based modifications to their properties.
“I guess the new generation, they’re more into growing vegetables and getting farm-fresh eggs,” Ciervo says.
The appeal isn’t entirely lost on him, however; Ciervo did recall
a fishing trip on which he’d gotten fresh eggs from a roadside farm stand and
remembered them as some of the best he’s ever had.
But as far as Collingswood homeowners go, he says, “I don’t know if that’s really the turn-on.”
Want to see how Haddon Township moves on the chicken issue? Its environmental commission will meet Wednesday evening, September 18, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at the Environmental and Historical Center.