About three years ago, Bret Torppey brought home six baby chicks to his Lyndhurst home from a Tractor Supply store in Sussex County for his two daughters as an Easter present. They naturally grew larger and he sent four packing to his brother’s home in northwest Jersey where farm animals are still a common household staple. the other two remained in a custom coop Torppey build in his backyard. Fran (for francaise) and Barbie (for barbeque) became more than pets; they provided food and fertilizer. but soon, the health inspector came calling and the conundrum of having a vague ordinance on the books allowing for farm animals soon turned into a general licensing ordinance to permit fowl township-wide.
“It really comes down to the fact that they were pets. They weren’t raising chickens for sale of poultry or for sale of eggs, these were pets,” said Mayor Richard DiLascio. “They don’t have an impact on Lyndhurst. Most people in the neighborhood know these chickens.”
For Torppey, who pays $25 a year for a chicken license, which allows the health inspector to decide on the number of chickens a licensee should have, the chickens are much more than pets. Torppey is the only person in town to have a chicken license, according to officials.
“They [the town] consider them pets, but for me, they are more than pets. My dogs don’t give me anything; my cats won’t give me anything. My chickens give me eggs, they give me fertilizer and mulch because their bedding is pine wood chips,” said Torppey. “There is no byproduct of a chicken. There’s nothing you need to take care of a chicken that isn’t earth conducive.”
The idea of fostering chickens in urban enclaves is nothing new. according to proponents, it’s a low impact but environmentally sustainable practice that benefits homeowners who do not need to shop for eggs and who can recycle shells and chicken waste for other uses such as compost and fertilizer for home gardens. Opponents however, most notably municipal governments who heed residents’ fears of noise, nuisance and sanitation, say chickens have no place in compact suburban and urban communities.
The issue hit a boiling point earlier this month in the Township of Wayne where the council voted down an ordinance that would have rolled back the area of a residential property that chickens could be kept on. the ordinance was borne out of a resident and urban homesteader, Victor Alfieri, who has been harboring three hens on his quarter acre lot for the past three and half years. the lot is too small under township ordinance. the town’s current ordinance allows a homeowner with more than two acres of land to own up to 25 hens. the proposed ordinance would have allowed homeowners with at least 10,000 square feet of land, about a quarter of an acre, to own four hens.
“They are an absolute perfect pet for the urban homestead. They work perfectly on a small piece of property,” said Alfieri, who said he and his wife began their first garden seven years ago and now produce 1,500 pounds annually in vegetables. from the chickens, he gets 300 eggs per hen per year and saves $300 annually from not buying eggs at the supermarket. “Gardeners are research individuals and ultimately, realities started to set in about where our food comes from, where it’s grown and the chemicals and pesticides that are used. It’s all about gaining back control; we’ve lost control of where our food comes from. we rely on supermarkets to do that. They buy it and then we buy it.”
Among the activists who were pushing for the ordinance change was Erica Evans, who founded a group in October 2011 called the North Jersey Locavores, which is based out of Wayne and aims to educate people about responsible, sustainable eating. to be a locavore is to support locally produced food from both farms and one’s own backyard. In an April 2 letter to the Wayne Town Council, she stated that only 81 of the 16,749 households in Wayne were allowed to house chickens and it was unreasonable to suppress the rest.
“We are asking for a reasonable number of chicken hens on a reasonable amount of property to provide our families with nutritious food and educational experiences,” wrote Evans. “The current ordinance creates an unfair, very tiny class of residents who are eligible for owning chicken hens versus those who cannot. Amending this ordinance would extend this special class of people to a broader group who could have the opportunity to raise backyard chicken hens.”
Alfieri, who has been issued a summons by the town, but won’t remove his hens, said he will forge on with his battle to keep his fowl because urban homesteading is steadily becoming a national movement and he hopes the Wayne government eventually sees why.