For East Rock resident Rebecca Weiner ’85, raising hens is a family tradition. Her aunt had a small farm stand, and Weiner wanted to keep a coop of her own — New Haven’s urban environment notwithstanding.
“If you make a simple coop using scrap lumber with designs freely available online or at a library, and you care for the hens yourself, and don’t take them into the vet every time they sneeze, and you feed them simple pellets,” Weiner said, “you can get eggs for 12 cents a dozen with six birds, not counting cost of labor.”
More than a year ago, Weiner began a campaign to legalize raising chickens in the Elm City, and allies from neighborhoods across New Haven rallied to her cause. Last month, their wish was granted as the Board of Aldermen passed legislation allowing individual residents to raise up to six hens in their backyards. The bill passed with support from a diverse group of backers, said Ward 9 Alderman Roland Lemar, and its benefits extend to residents across the Elm City — even at the Yale Farm.
A student committee at Yale has been formed to work out the logistics of keeping hens on the Yale Farm, said Daniel MacPhee, farm manager for the Yale Sustainable Food Project. MacPhee said the committee is tasked to determine how raising hens would square with University policies.
MacPhee noted that other institutions, including Dartmouth College and New Haven’s Common Ground High School, have successfully hatched chicken-raising programs of their own. Chickens have always been high on the list of demands of Yalies working at the farm, and can “educate and normalize the practice” of raising food in one’s own community, he said.
As for raising chickens outside his fellows’ residence in Calhoun College?
“As much as I would love to see chickens scratching and pecking their way around a residential college courtyard, I don’t see livestock as a likely addition to dorm life at Yale quite yet,” MacPhee said. “Though, there was a cow grazing in Harvard Yard last month, so who knows …”
The people who pressed for the bill’s passage represented diverse interests — they approached the bill as a nutrition issue, a sustainability issue, a cultural issue, a property rights issue and a “pet chicken” issue, too, Lemar said.
“This bill gives everyone a right to provide local, high-quality protein for themselves, without having to jump through hoops and without having to ask anyone else,” Ward 14 Alderwoman Erin Sturgis-Pascale said.
Fair Haven, where Lemar said most of the flocks afoul of city law were once found, will benefit from “the right to raise chickens and the clarification to do so in better ways,” he said.
Three community leaders interviewed said that some families in the city have kept chickens for a long time. Under the previous ordinance, chickens could be kept legally only after a costly petition to New Haven’s Board of Zoning Appeals.
“The process and cost was a barrier to many people,” Lemar said. “And even for people who could navigate those systems, the process brought a lot of outside eyes into people’s backyards.”
The new bill allows residents to raise hens by default, and that right is only put in question upon complaint.
With hopes that the new bill will raise more hens than hell, supporters of the bill held a community class called “Chicken 101” at Edgewood Magnet School on Thursday night, offering tips about how to keep chickens. A good hen lays about as many eggs in a week as the number of people who showed up: fewer than half a dozen.
Rafael Crespo, the school’s head custodian, arrived at the meeting to clean up afterward. At the moment when Crespo entered, Michael Darre of the University of Connecticut was teaching attendants about chicken nutrition. (“Use commercial feed!” Darre said.)
As the event ended, Crespo talked with other participants. “This is just cool,” he said. “I didn’t know it was legal to keep chickens.”
Originally from Puerto Rico, Crespo said that as a child, chickens were a way to raise eggs and meat that “we didn’t even think about.” Being able to do so as a resident of New Haven may give him something more than a supplement to his food supply, he said.”
“The sound of chickens is beautiful — it brings me back to the islands,” he said. He said he intended to tell others in his City Point neighborhood about the new law.
Still, not everyone has been enthusiastic about the ordinance allowing city residents to keep chickens.
Initially, the bill’s opposition came from people who were concerned with health issues associated with raising chickens. But expert testimony from Darre and others convinced most of the members of the Board of Aldermen that those concerns were overblown, Lemar said. Speaking after Chicken 101, Darre said birds, if managed properly in accordance with the law, pose about as much of health risk as dogs and cats. If consumed, he said, chickens pose as much risk as garden vegetables.
The new law accounted for some of these concerns: it requires that birds be kept in enclosures at least 15 feet from property lines, Darre said.
Rafael Ramos — who, as a zoning enforcement officer will field complaints about chickens — said the bill means he will also have to be on the lookout for rodents and predators the hens may attract. He said he hopes hen owners comply with the new ordinance.
“People need their yards clean and sanitary,” Ramos said.
The law’s proponents also offered to write a manual to encourage good care for hens that is humane, hygienic and responsible to neighbors.
“[Raising chickens is] not rocket science, but there are better and worse ways of doing it,” said Weiner, who also helped to organize Chicken 101.
Westville resident Troy Resch, another Chicken 101 attendee, said he was there to gather information before deciding whether to raise hens with his kids. Though miles apart from Crespo’s birthplace of Puerto Rico, Resch said he also had rural roots. His grandfather was a Connecticut dairy farmer, and as a kid he still had contact with livestock and chickens.
“We love living in an urban environment,” Resch said. “But we also want our three children to have contact with the natural world. This new bill gives a fantastic way to do that.”