Byram Township is considering an ordinance that would allow residents to keep up to five hens on a single-family residential lot.
The township council scheduled a July 6 public hearing and vote on the ordinance. Instead, the council voted 3-1 to continue the hearing until July 21 and refer the ordinance to the planning board for review.
Mayor Alexander Rubenstein opposed sending the ordinance to the planning board. Councilman Jack Gallagher, who also serves on the planning board, was absent.
Councilman Raymond Bonker said resident Shannon Mahoney has kept chickens on her property for three years in violation of current zoning. Bonker commended Mahoney for petitioning the government by speaking at the meeting, calling council members, circulating a petition, and producing research on how other New Jersey towns are handling chickens. “It is one of our fundamental rights as a people,” he said.
Bonker said he supports the ordinance but wants the planning board’s guidance on setback regulations, waste management, and enforcement. He said he wants to respect private property rights while encouraging 4-H style animal husbandry projects.
Free-range chickens wouldn’t be running around the neighborhood, Bonker said, since the proposed ordinance requires the hens to be in an enclosure at all times. Manure storage and disposal requirements, enforced by the zoning officer, would prevent bad odors, he said. The planning board might add a way for a neighbor to lodge a formal odor complaint, he said.
Bonker read a statement by Gallagher, who agreed the ordinance should be sent to the planning board. Gallagher said five chickens might be too many on smaller lots.
Thomas Collins, the township attorney, said substantial changes to matters like set-back distances and number of chickens allowed would require the draft ordinance to be reintroduced.
Councilwoman Cris Franco said the ordinance should come under the livestock category, not the animals category, as proposed. That way the township could use existing site plans, bird-unit calculations, and manure and fencing specifications.
Franco said that, with further coronavirus shutdowns possible, she understands why residents would want to be able to provide their own food. She said the township could create a free application for backyard chicken agriculture to make residents aware of the ordinance. She supports the ordinance but wants to perfect it, she said.
Councilman Harvey Roseff said he favors relaxing the requirements, but what might work in one part of town could be a disaster in another. “If we relax something, we should do it in the right way,” he said.
Public is divided
During public comment, about six residents spoke in favor of the ordinance, five against, and one recommended sending the ordinance to the planning board.
Those in favor said it was too bad it took eight years to start the ordinance up again from its introduction in 2013. A small flock should not cause bad odors, they said, and there was no need for planning board review.
Some agreed with Franco that it is important to allow chickens in the pandemic for greater self-sufficiency. Chickens are less subject to predators if kept in a cage, they said.
Opponents said backyard chickens would create an attractive nuisance for predators. Chicken feed attracts rodents, they said, and bad smells and early-morning squawks could cause friction among neighbors.
Rubenstein said the ordinance requires chickens to be 50 feet from lakes, ponds, streams, or wetlands. they cannot be in the front yard. In many cases, he said, it would be difficult under the proposed ordinance for many homeowners to have chickens .
Rubenstein said chickens are allowed in Bergen and Essex counties, Newark, and in Manhattan apartment buildings. He said he contacted the Department of Agriculture, which said the draft ordinance looked reasonable.
Federal code says chickens are not livestock, Rubenstein said.
He told council members they were elected to make these kinds of decisions, and that he does want to repeat the non-action of the 2013 ordinance.