City resident fights to hold on to pet chicken

Beyond the honking cars, shrieking sirens and grinding construction machinery, New Haven residents may just be able to make out the sounds of chickens BAWK BAWK-ing.

The New Haven Board of Zoning Appeals last night reviewed an appeal that Rebecca Weiner ’85 and her husband Michael Rastelli filed after a neighbor’s complaint almost cost them their six backyard chickens last spring. Although the board has yet to come to a decision, chickens could be well on their way to becoming legal citizens of New Haven through legislation being developed by aldermen and community groups.

Rebecca Weiner '85 and her daughter Sarah hold a chicken they call their pet. A neighbor's complaint prompted a hearing of the Board of Zoning Appeals on Tuesday.
Ani Katz
Rebecca Weiner '85 and her daughter Sarah hold a chicken they call their pet. A neighbor's complaint prompted a hearing of the Board of Zoning Appeals on Tuesday.

Whether or not New Haven’s zoning ordinances consider Weiner’s chickens to be “pets” or “livestock” is at the heart of the question facing the Board of Zoning Appeals, where Weiner and Rastelli presented a petition with over 40 of their neighbors’ signatures supporting their chicken coop last night.

At first glance, Weiner’s chickens may seem like an unusual rural transplant into an urban backyard, but city chicken-raising has been catching on in many metropolitan areas, including San Francisco, New York City, Houston, Los Angeles and Seattle. Instead of commercially raised, supermarket poultry, chicken owners say they prefer the high-quality taste of mature chickens and the nutritious value of organic fresh eggs — not to mention the sheer fun of chasing a chicken around a yard.

“They’re cute, they’re fun and they’re low-maintenance pets who are fun and relaxing to watch,” Weiner said. “My daughter and kids in the neighborhood enjoy them. They keep our garden free of pests without putting chemicals in the soil, [and] they even seem to keep the number of mosquitoes down.”

But in other cities, such as Boston, chicken raisers have had to grapple with strict zoning laws that forbid hens because they qualify as “livestock.”

The issue garnered attention in May when an elderly resident from an apartment complex bordering Weiner’s backyard in Westville anonymously complained that a “rooster’s” crows were waking her up at 7:00 a.m. Weiner said her chickens let out a pronounced sound when they lay their eggs in the morning, but the sounds are relatively quiet compared to a rooster’s crow and do not persist throughout the day.

A Livable Cities Initiative inspector paid a visit to Weiner and Rastelli’s home and issued a cease-and-desist order, giving them 10 days to appeal the order or get rid of their chickens, Weiner said. Contending that New Haven’s zoning codes ambiguously legislate the term “livestock,” Weiner and Rastelli appealed to the board last night.

“The general ordinance says the keeping of chickens is banned if they are a nuisance, which suggests that they’re allowed if they’re not a nuisance,” Weiner said. “Secondly, it says in [a low-middle density residential] zone you are not allowed to keep livestock for agricultural purposes. So what does that mean? If you keep a few and get eggs from them, are they livestock?”

At the hearing Weiner repeated her offer to move her chicken coop toward her garage, placing it 50 feet away from its current position near the fence that separates her house and the apartment complex where the complaint originated. When compiling her petition, Weiner said, she approached as many residents as possible in the neighboring apartment building; although a few voiced health concerns regarding the chickens, most said they did not mind.

Although no one stood in opposition to her appeal during the hearing last night, Weiner said she is not entirely confident she will win the appeal, given how closely the board seemed to be reading the city’s zoning ordinance. In the event that the appeal does not go through, she said, her family will apply for a special exemption to the ordinance.

Ward 25 Alderwoman Ina Silverman, Ward 9 Alderman Roland Lemar and Weiner are in the process of bringing together community groups to support bills that would legalize chicken-raising in New Haven. The groups’ interests range from sustainability to food safety to animal rights, but they have all been very enthusiastic toward the legislation, Weiner said.

Weiner and her allies have also approached Yale organizations for sponsorship, Weiner said. Although Yale Sustainable Food Project director Josh Viertel said he is not sure whether programs affiliated with Yale are allowed to endorse legislation, he spoke on his own behalf at the hearing in support of urban chicken-raising.

“[New Haven] is a city suffering from a lack of food culture,” he said before the appeals board. “To create a law that would make room for families to raise chickens so they can have a connection to the land and the garden would be the city stepping up and saying, ‘You know, it really matters where our children are raised.’”

Lemar said the drafted legislation is in the research stage and that writing the bill thus far has been a fairly complicated process.

“In New Haven’s neighborhoods, some homes exist on little, tiny property,” he said. “You don’t want to go with just a minimal lot property or a maximum chicken number … You must look for a combination so that you can give people who are responsible a lot of latitude.”

Weiner said she knows about eight chicken-raising families on a personal basis, but she has heard that at least 30 such chicken owners reside in the city. Fair Haven resident Lee Cruz said chickens and roosters, particularly in Fair Haven, are not uncommon in the area, since many of Fair Haven’s Latin-American residents hail from agriculturally-based cultures.

Crowing roosters present something of a noise problem for Fair Haven, Lee said, and many American cities allow chickens while banning roosters. But neither disturbs Lee — having lived in Nicaragua for twelve years, he said the sounds are easy to ignore, like smells that people learn to forget.

“Down there [roosters and chickens] just become a part of the background noise,” he said. “There’s so many background noises in an urban setting that [the sounds] kind of get absorbed. But for some reason, that particular sound, because it’s unusual, stands out for people here.”

Livable Cities Initiative representatives could not be reached for comment.

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