ITHACA, NY – On Wednesday, Ithaca’s Planning and Economic Development took another step in the slow, careful walk toward legalizing “backyard chickens” in Ithaca.

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The issue first came before Common Council years ago, but despite substantial community support, it failed to gain traction. However, while technically illegal in most parts of the city, the laws prohibiting the birds were laxly enforced.

Related: Fate of Ithaca chickens debated after unknown tipster stirs nest

It came to the fore again in June of this year, when an anonymous tipster began informing police about people who owned chickens in the city. The Planning and Economic Development Committee started reexamining the issue then, and on Wednesday they finally reached a solution they felt comfortable moving forward with.

Rather than lifting the chicken prohibition across the city entirely, the committee proposed a two-year pilot program that would allow up to 20 residences to own up to 4 hens each.

The birds would only be allowed in single-family or duplex residences, and the hens must remain in a coop with a fence enclosure. Also, of course, the chickens must be in the backyard.

Applicants would pay a $70 licensing fee and have to attend a course on proper care of urban chickens. This was done with the aid of the Cornell Cooperative Extension, who also offered to re-home the birds should the program be discontinued.

A primary barrier to earlier versions of the legislation was expense to the city. A proposed licensing program would have created a lot of work for city staff. The limited scope of the pilot program and aid from the Cornell Cooperative Extension made it a much easier pill to swallow.

Another source of contention was the potential nuisance – sounds and smells – produced by the chickens. The committee debated about a person’s responsibility to inform their neighbors and suggested that notifying one’s neighbors may be part of the application process.

The specifics of enforcement were also called to question, and what might happen if a person refused to allow their enclosure to be inspected.

“I’m assuming that the permits can be revoked at any time during the pilot program… if there are consistent complaints and the department can’t get in there, I would assume there’s some mechanism for revoking the permit,” said 4th ward alderperson Graham Kerslick.

Related: Ithaca to look at plan to legalize chicken ownership in city

In a memo drafted by 5th ward alderperson Josephine Martell that outlined the plan, she noted that it fit in well with the city’s comp plan, writing:

Chicken keeping is also part of a larger sustainability trend to allow citizens to grow their own foods – including fruits, vegetables and honey production – by reducing barriers, which restrict local food production… Also, conventional agricultural practices that have been in place since World War II have relied on pesticides and fertilizers to produce food for the mass consumer markets. These are typically petroleum-intensive operations. With rising fuel and food prices, allowing local food production may improve the resiliency of a particular city or region to current and future price swings or food shortages.

It may still be quite some time before the pilot program launches. Wednesday’s meeting was just a discussion, and specifics of the application process and enforcement will still need to be ironed out. Due to a potentially crowded January agenda, further progress might have to wait until February.

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Michael Smith

Michael Smith reports on politics and local news for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached via email at, by cell at (607) 229-0885, or via Google Voice at (518) 650-3639.