Saturday, March 6, 2021

Township council to peck further into chicken ordinance

STATE COLLEGE — 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 chickens as pets during the pandemic.

Some supported the Elliott family’s plight, while others sided with the existing township ordinance that doesn’t allow the animals to be kept as pets.

Support to change the ordinance came from people around the region and country via, while the township received other correspondence asking the board to leave the ordinance as written.

An anonymous complaint to the township prompted action after code enforcement officers told the Elliott family they would be fined if the chickens weren’t removed from the property by a specified date.

In turn, the family decided to appeal the ordinance concerning the keeping of chickens as pets in the township; however, they feared Maeve would have to give up her pets before the township’s council could vote on the matter.

In response, the council members granted them a onetime waiver for the $600 zoning appeal fee and allowed Maeve to keep Purple, Banana, Waffles and El until the issue came to a vote.

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” — 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 is concerned, Schoch said that three times over the last 10 years this issue of residential backyard chickens has come up, but was denied by the council each time.

She said for chickens to be allowed to be raised as pets in the zoning district, the township must adopt a new ordinance permitting this.

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.