College Township staff is working on a potential ordinance that would permit backyard hens.
This comes after questions about the keeping of hens arose over the past few months when 10-year-old Maeve Elliott started raising four small hens as pets during the pandemic, which her family acquired under the impression from a township council member that they were not prohibited.
After an anonymous complaint, the township zoning officer issued an enforcement notice saying the chickens violated an ordinance that prohibits residents from keeping farm animals on less than 10 acres in a residential zoning district.
The Elliotts said the old ordinance is vaguely worded and has been misapplied by the township in assuming the keeping of hens on residential properties is a prohibited "farm use," which is not clearly defined. They also noted that where the intent of language, such as "farm use," is in doubt, the Municipal Planning Code calls for it to be interpreted in favor of the property owner, and said that the existing ordinance has been inconsistently applied.
They also do not know what the specific nature of the complaint was and said their neighbors all seem to enjoy the chickens.
The story prompted residents of the area — and some outside the township and even outside the commonwealth — to send dozens of letters to township officials regarding the chickens and the local ordinance governing them.
The vast majority supported the Elliott family’s plight, while a few sided with the existing township ordinance or wanted any changes to have protections for neighbors.
Support to change the ordinance came from people around the region and country via public comment, letters and a change.org petition.
In issuing the violation notice, code enforcement officers told the Elliott family they would be fined if the chickens weren’t removed from the property by July 1. The family was unsure if they could move forward with an appeal to the zoning hearing board, given the $600 appeal fee involved and likelihood that they would have to take the matter to Pennsylvania appeals courts if the board ruled against them
In response, the council members granted them a one-time waiver for the $600 zoning appeal fee and allowed Maeve to keep Purple, Banana, Waffles and El at least until the appeal process concluded or there is a change to the ordinance.
On July 16, the council addressed the matter during a broader discussion about the definition of "farm use" in the township.
The primary question the township was considering centered around the phrase in the ordinance — “farm use” — and should the keeping of chickens, or even the act of gardening, be allowable in the residential zoning district?
Township staff determined, after reviewing the definition, that “farm use” in the R-1 district does not include the on-site tilling of up to one acre or 50 percent of an individual parcel for the raising of trees, plants, shrubs, flowers, garden crops, fruits, or vegetables intended for personal use or, eventually, offsite donation or sale.
“We came up with this because there has been some confusion over whether we allow tilling of the land or gardening in residential zoning districts,” said Lindsay Schoch, College Township’s principal planner.
So, while the ordinance could have been interpreted to read that crop gardens were a problem under the zoning, staff determined these types of gardens are allowable per the current ordinance.
As far as the keeping of chickens on residential properties is concerned, Schoch said that three times over the last 10 years this issue has come up, but was denied by the council each time.
In 2009 it was discussed but never voted on. In 2013 and 2014, council voted down the same proposed ordinance that would have allowed for keeping backyard chickens.
Schoch said for chickens to be allowed to be raised as pets in the zoning district, the township must adopt a new ordinance permitting it.
The conversation among staff and council members about this potential ordinance focused on what other Centre Region municipalities have done in regards to regulating the keeping of backyard hens.
Council provided direction to staff in crafting a backyard hens ordinance for review by the council and planning commission.
There was a consensus of council that the ordinance should utilize setbacks from lot lines rather than lot size (as in Harris Township), consider distances from neighboring homes (as in State College Borough) and provide for regulations pertaining to proper coop and run size and construction and screening (as also done in State College Borough).
Staff will now use this information to begin working on a draft ordinance for review and will also return to council with some “modeling” of various setbacks and use of back and side yards to assist in refining the guidance on where backyard hens may be allowed, said township Manager Adam Brumbaugh.
Brumbaugh said council will likely see a draft of the potential ordinance in early September, after which it will move to the planning commission to review before giving recommendations to council.
The council will then review the recommendation for a final decision and set up a public hearing before a final vote is taken. Brumbaugh said the best-case scenario for all this to happen would fall sometime in October, which would depend on the amount of time council and the planning commission spend reviewing the ordinance.
The Elliotts filed their zoning appeal on June 30. The zoning hearing board has 60 days to schedule a hearing and a decision must be rendered within 45 days after the hearing concludes.
Maeve's father, Nathan Elliott, said as of July 23 they have not yet received word on a scheduled date for the hearing.
"We are hoping the council can decide on a chicken ordinance for everyone before we have to drag Maeve's situation through the courts, he said. "Since the council is actively looking at a chicken ordinance, we feel it is not a good use of time and money for either side to have to continue going down the [zoning hearing board] and appeals court path."
StateCollege.com's Geoff Rushton contributed to this story.