ITHACA, NY – Politicians and journalists alike breathed a collective sigh of relief on Wednesday as Ithaca’s Common Council put to bed the longstanding of issue of whether or not to allow backyard chickens, voting 6-3 in favor of allowing the birds.

The ordinance establishes 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.

Three months before the pilot program ends, the city will be presented with information about how the program is proceeding before they decide to continue, end or modify the program.


The issue of whether or not people should be allowed to slaughter the chickens on their property was once again was central to the discussion. Alderperson George McGonigal suggested re-adding the prohibition to the ordinance, but the amendment failed 5-4.

Alderperson Steve Smith, who voted against the ordinance, called into question whether or not backyard chickens actually fit into the city’s goals of increased sustainability.

“The sustainability claims are pretty dubious. When you decentralize the operation, when you build individualized infrastructures, and you’re still resulting in similar greenhouse gas outputs… there aren’t very many sustainability gains there, if any at all,” said Smith.

Another opponent of the plan, Alderperson Deb Mohlenhoff, said that she was concerned about the enforcement system, saying that she had both good and bad experiences with backyard chickens in Fall Creek.

The current plan is a based around complaints to the city, the Cornell Cooperative Extension or the Ithaca Police Department and a person’s permit can be revoked.

While arguing against the slaughter prohibition, Alderperson Cynthia Brock pointed out that there are already people who own chickens in spite of the law, but there have been minimal complaints.

“We know that many many households are keeping chickens. They might be slaughtering them or they might not, but up until this point I haven’t heard one complaint. And these are individuals who are flouting the law already.”

(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.