Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported that backyard chickens are legal across the board in the town of Ithaca. In fact, they are legal only in certain zones within the town.

ITHACA, N.Y. — When his children were younger, John Skawski wanted to teach them how to treat animals respectfully and help them understand how food got to their plate. So he began raising a small brood of hens in the family’s backyard.

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If Skawski lived in Trumansburg or Newfield, this would be no problem. But Skawski lives in the city of Ithaca where—except for medical, educational, or research purposes—owning chickens is illegal.

(Photos courtesy of Pierre Sassone, who legally owns chickens in the Town of Ithaca.)

“I can understand the ban, especially in tight neighborhoods,” said Skawski, “but I also believe that this can be done safely and with little or no disturbance to others if the proper care is taken.”

Tipster stirs (chicken) pot

For a long time, the chicken ban was in place but not enforced. Now, there is a new problem: someone in Ithaca has been going around anonymously reporting illegal chicken-owners, putting Ithaca Police, and those with chickens, in a tough position.

Ithaca’s Chief of Police, John Barber, has insisted that enforcing the chicken ordinance is “very low on the priority list.”

When police are called to a scene, however, they must comply with city law. “Officers will show up, and sure enough, it’s illegal on the books,” said Mayor Svante Myrick. This forces police to cite the chicken-owners.

Recently, a local woman was anonymously reported for owning chickens and ticketed by IPD, but when she went to court, the prosecutor waived the fine.

“The reason that the fine was dropped and the reason that we’ve officially made this a low-enforcement priority,” said Myrick, “is that now council is going to have to weigh in.”

This is not the first Ithaca chicken debate

But this is not the first time that the issue has gone before Common Council. About four or five years ago, efforts to legalize backyard chickens first began gaining traction.

“After three or four months of working at the council level,” Myrick said, “we realized that we had come up with a plan that would be very expensive, very time consuming, and that the people who own chickens didn’t even like.” So chickens remained illegal, but the city continued a policy of lax enforcement.

Now, due to the anonymous reporter, Myrick says the issue will again be discussed by council, but it is unclear how much support there is for backyard chickens.

“There are many big issues facing Common Council, and this is not one of them,” said First Ward Alderperson George McGonigal.

According to McGonigal, the issue was recently discussed at one of the council’s meetings, and Ithaca’s Building Department warned of varmints, while others were worried about the smell of chickens. “I don’t see any groundswell around changing the ordinance,” said McGonigal.

Groundswell support for chickens

Peggy Tully, who runs a Facebook page supporting the legalization of chickens in Ithaca, said, “there’s a disconnect between Common Council’s understanding of the reasoning behind backyard chickens and what the actual reasoning is.”

Tully said she organized the group called City of Ithaca NY Backyard Chickens NOW, which has more than 200 likes on Facebook, “to show the city that there is a lot of support for this, despite what Common Council is saying.”

She said people raise chickens mainly because they love animals and do not want to support factory farms. “People with chickens are just trying to live up to the principles of sustainability and high quality food in the only way that they can afford to,” said Tully.

She noted that humanely-raised eggs cost 50 cents each at Greenstar, versus about 15 cents when collected from one’s own chickens, a number similar to that of factory-produced eggs. “There is a lot of talk about local food, eating well, keeping money local, and environmental stewardship,” said Tully, “but when it comes down to it, it seems very difficult for the city to move forward.”

While the majority of the Common Council may not support legalizing backyard chickens, Myrick certainly does. “Chickens, if well-regulated, are good for the environment and are the most local form of agriculture imaginable,” said Myrick. “With good ownership, they can be very clean. I’ve got no problem with them, and, in fact, I think they could improve the quality of life a fair amount.”

Despite the mayor’s support, it appears backyard chickens may remain illegal for quite some time if he cannot persuade Common Council to agree.

Alderperson McGonigal, however, has some advice for Skawski and others who defy the ban: “If your neighbors don’t ‘squawk,’ urban poultry farmers can take their chances.”


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Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs

Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs is an intern with the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at nbogel@ithacavoice.com.