ITHACA, N.Y. — For as long as anyone can remember, city of Ithaca residents have been banned from owning chickens, forcing local poultry enthusiasts to raise their hens illegally.

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Now, there is a revitalized effort to legalize backyard chickens after the Ithaca Voice reported that an anonymous tipster was pressuring Ithaca Police to enforce the ban by outing local chicken owners.

On Wednesday night, members of Ithaca’s Planning and Economic Development Committee discussed the possibility of amending the city’s code to allow citizens to own up to four hens, and some even proposed allowing as many hens as a person could raise humanely.

“I’m inclined to do whatever we can to legalize current practice,” said Second Ward Alderperson Seph Murtagh, who chairs the committee. “People seem to be doing this now and it isn’t creating any serious concerns within the city. The only reason this [discussion] is even going on is that there was an anonymous tipster going around and reporting people.”

First Ward Alderperson Cynthia Brock said that she had previously been wary of legalizing backyard chickens, but had recently received letters urging her to do so. “The correspondence I’ve received hasn’t been 100% [in favor], but there is a lot of enthusiasm, which has given me cause to say we should take a look at this.”

“I think it’s time,” said Fourth Ward Alderperson Graham Kerslick. “I’m sympathetic for this, and concerns can be addressed with the proper legislation.”

Amnesty for chicken owners?

Those concerns largely focused on smell, noise, and the potential to attract predators.

“There are people who will take good care of their chickens, and there are people who won’t,” said Brock, “just as we have people who are good dog owners, and people who aren’t.”

But Thomas Shelley, who worked for more than a decade in Cornell’s Department of Environmental Health and Safety and now serves on the Board of Directors for Sustainable Tompkins, addressed the board to quell their unease.

Shelley proposed that local chicken owners form a “cooperative, volunteer organization” and carry out “mandatory chicken training to help people understand what their commitments would be … and use peer pressure to deal with any problems that might arise.”

“It could be amnesty for current chicken holders,” said Shelley, who also contributed to the newly submitted comprehensive plan, a document that outlines goals for the city of Ithaca. “The comprehensive plan speaks very highly to food security issues and people producing their own food, so it’s important to put this in [the plan],” Shelley said, referring to the proposed chicken ordinance.

Laurie Pattington, who lives on Corn Street, also spoke to the committee in support of chickens, noting that a flock of six hens produces less feces in a year than one medium-sized dog. “If we are allowed to have rabbits, we should be allowed to have hens,” said Pattington. “They are as much livestock as they are pets.”

One committee member likened the current ban to the one on marijuana, saying both laws were on the books but rarely enforced, leading some members to question if chicken legislation was necessary.

Yet, First Ward Alderperson George McGonigal said that, in his ward, “people are interested in raising chickens but they don’t want to break the law,” and Murtagh agreed, saying, “If we’re going to be embracing this, we should find a way to do it legally.”

The discussion was very much in favor of legalizing backyard chickens, but the committee decided they needed to explore all the possibilities before moving on legislation. They plan to reach out to the Cornell Cooperative Extension, Tompkins County SPCA, and Ithaca Police Department before reconvening for their August meeting.

“I’ve only scratched the surface of this issue,” said Kerslick, who was met with resounding laughter and agreement.

Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs

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