ITHACA, N.Y. — The sound of guinea hens, playing from someone’s phone, filled city hall Wednesday night as the Planning and Economic Development Committee wrapped up its discussion on the possibility of legally owning chickens in the City of Ithaca.

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Some committee members said they had been contacted by people concerned about quality of life issues at stake if ownership becomes legal, in particular, focusing on the noises and smells associated with chickens.

But about half a dozen people attending the meeting voiced their support for legalization and tried to debunk stereotypes about the birds.

“Smell it! You can open it and smell it,” Amanda Zerilli said, passing around a bag of compost mixed with chicken waste.

She told officials that the claim of bad chicken coop smells is both exaggerated and preventable when knowledgeably approached by chicken owners.

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

She and William Skipper have owned four hens for the past year and a half on their double lot in the city of Ithaca. They were anonymously reported for owning the birds back in June and were fined, but the prosecutor waived the fee because the matter is being discussed by the city.

Zerilli said it was the first time she heard a complaint about the chickens.

“It has been completely positive. All of our neighbors have been in favor,” she said.

Among other Ithacans in favor of legalization is Peggy Tully, who runs the City of Ithaca NY Backyard Chickens NOW Facebook page, which has more than 300 likes.

She said there are far more pros than cons to owning chickens. For instance, she said  it allows people to fertilize lawns, teaches kids where food comes from, gives people access to inexpensive eggs and helps people a change to live a sustainable lifestyle in an urban setting.

“Backyard chickens are not for everyone, but many responsible people in the city are eager to own their own birds,” she said.

Tully, like others at the meeting, agreed that people causing quality of life issues for their neighbors should be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, as opposed to cracking down on all owners with a continued blanket ban.

Common Council member Ellen McCollister was among several people, however, who questioned how the city should move forward.

She said there is a difference between what Ithacans say they care about and how they behave, citing inappropriate behavior at local dams and some people’s irresponsibility with their pets in public places.

She said officials will have to grapple with how to enforce legislation that would have to protect the welfare of the birds and act in the best interest of the community as a whole.

Common Councilor Cynthia Brock also questioned the practicality of enforcement.

“When you have issues of odor that are impossible to measure, at what point is the odor too much, for instance?” she said. “I’m not aware of tools that can be utilized to ask a neighbor to cease and desist something that they have a right to do.”

Moving Forward

Committee Chair Joseph Murtagh said there seems to be general interest in at least exploring the legalization of chicken ownership.

He attached a sample legislation draft to the last page of the committee agenda.

The eight-point draft covers issues such as noise, odor, rodents, animal welfare and enforcement. Murtagh said he wrote the points after researching best practices in other cities.

“That’s something I pulled together over the last month just looking at some other cities and what they’ve done,” he said.

The next step for chicken legalization, he said, is conversations and edits to draft legislation within the committee.

He was sure to clarify that roosters and guinea hens would not be considered for legal ownership in any of the drafts.

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Jolene Almendarez

Jolene Almendarez is Managing Editor at The Ithaca Voice. She can be reached at jalmendarez@ithacavoice.com; you can learn more about her at the links in the top right of this box.