ITHACA, NY – It’s been almost one year since the Ithaca’s Planning and Economic Development Committee (PEDC) began its latest attempt at revising the city’s policy on backyard chickens.

The issue has appeared in some form on almost every agenda of the committee since.

“It’s the great issue of our age,” joked Alderperson Seph Murtagh as discussion once again turned to backyard chickens during the May 11 PEDC meeting.

Following a 4-1 vote during that meeting meeting, a new backyard chickens ordinance will finally make its way to the Common Council proper for consideration during the June meeting.

Keeping chickens is technically illegal within the city, but the law was laxly enforced. However, last year an anonymous tipster began reporting people who owned chickens to the police, forcing them to take action.

While several city officials were generally in support of backyard chickens as a way to support sustainability and local food production, their initial proposal fell flat as it would have proven expensive and time consuming for city staff.

The new approach to the backyard chickens ordinance that Common Council will vote on would establish a two-year pilot program limited to 20 residences within the city. Each residence would be allowed to keep a maximum of four hens (no roosters or guinea fowl) per 3,000 square foot lot.

The birds would have to be kept in clean coops at least 20 feet away from the primary residence and five feet away from any adjacent property line.

Additionally, applicants would pay a $35 fee to register for the program, and would be required to complete a seminar at the Cornell Cooperative Extension to learn how to properly care for the birds. If a person proved an unsuitable host for the chickens, the Cooperative Extension would work to re-home the animals.

2nd ward Alderperson Ducson Nguyen voted against the resolution. “Most of it is neighborly relations and the people talk to who do live next to them don’t enjoy it. But again, it’s an experiment and the ordinance is really well done so I won’t be too upset to see it pass through Council,” he said.

The slaughter question

One of the biggest issues around this version of the ordinance was whether or not it should allow for the slaughter of the animals on the property, with some people having concerns about noise or sanitation issues, as well as if on-site slaughter would be done humanely.

Ultimately, the PEDC decided not to add any restrictions for slaughtering chickens at an owner’s residence.

“They are a food animal, most of them are going to be eaten at some point. Whether they’re being killed on-site or being taken off-site, I think that’s a reality of this issue,” said Alderperson Josephine Martell, who headed up the new backyard chickens ordinance.

“From an animal welfare perspective, I think it’s actually more humane to kill them on site, its much less stressing to the animal and probably nicer to be killed by someone they know than a stranger,” she added. The statement prompted a bit of uncomfortable laughter from the committee, but none disagreed.

(Featured image courtesy of Steven L. Johnson on Flickr)

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.