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Kicking and Squawking

Controversial law allowing chickens in Albany clucks closer to a vote

by Laurie Lynn Fischer on April 20, 2011

More than a dozen people spoke in favor of legalizing the keeping of hens before the Albany Common Council’s Law Committee on April 14. The committee dedicated an hour and a half to discussion of the contested issue.

“The courtroom was full, and not one person spoke against the proposal,” noted its sponsor, Dominick Calsolaro (Ward 1). “Right now I plan on having a vote on it on May 2. I’d like to get people on the record one way or another. I think it’s close. I think it’s going to either pass 8-7 or lose 8-7.”

The law would grant 50 permits each year allowing city dwellers to keep up to five hens on their property. Applicants would need to secure consent from adjoining neighbors’ and would be subject to inspections from code enforcement officials. To cover administrative costs, the annual renewal fee would equal that for Albany’s most expensive dog license.

The Law Committee was divided over the hen ordinance last week. Chairman Joseph Igoe (Ward 14) and Jackie Jenkins-Cox (Ward 5) opposed it, while Michael O’Brien (Ward 12) and Richard Conti (Ward 6) favored a slightly changed version.

Despite their deadlock, the committee voted 3-1 to send the law on to the full council. Jenkins-Cox was the only one who voted against putting it on the floor; she was worried, in part, about opening the door to cockfighting.

Introduced late in 2010, the legislation is modeled after laws passed in Buffalo and Portland, Ore. If it passes, Albany will join hundreds of cities nationwide that have allowed chickens, said Calsolaro.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control recommends small flocks over large-scale commercial operations, he said, recalling how consumers were alerted last year to “contaminated eggs mass-produced in factories.”

Inspectors could check at any time whether the hens live in sanitary conditions, insisted Michael Guidice of Grand Street. Chicken droppings are cleaner than those of dogs or cats and  are great fertilizer, he said, adding that roosters may crow, but hens just cluck, and they’re quieter than barking dogs.

“The real story, I think, that’s underneath all this is how much people really care about these issues of sustainability, and how much some aspects of our government don’t understand them at all,” Guidice said. “If we look at American cities that are succeeding and attracting new residents, they are places that are making the issue of sustainability an important part of their focus. I believe Albany could be such a place. I hope that the Albany Chickens movement is one step in the right direction.”

He and his wife are spearheading Albany’s grassroots movement to allow hens.

“Our campaign’s really going to pick up in the next couple weeks,” he said. “We’ve gathered hundreds of petition signatures on Facebook. We’ve had hundreds of paper petitions signed by individuals. Dozens and dozens of people have written letters. Some have been going door to door canvassing and talking about the issue. We’ve visited almost all of the neighborhood associations. It’s really fun to see it working. I get calls every day, ‘How can I volunteer?’ and ‘How can I help?’”

The first word Guidice’s son uttered was chicken. The boy learned important life lessons by caring for the family’s backyard birds and collecting the eggs, his father said.

Then one day last year, Guidice had an argument with a mason over payment. Guidice thought the work was shoddy. The contractor threatened to rat out his hens.

The next thing Guidice knew, the city ordered him to remove the fowl within 24 hours; he carried his flock down the road to the Albany Free School, which has an educational variance allowing chickens. His children mention daily how they miss the hens, he says.

For almost a decade, farm animals of any sort have been forbidden in Albany. Councilman Daniel Herring (Ward 13) drafted the ban after his constituents complained of a raucous rooster. The law passed unanimously in 2001.

Nearly ten years later, Herring is throwing his weight against a special dispensation for hens.

“I’m dubious at best about the efficacy of allowing chickens within the city,” he said. “I really don’t know which way the vote will go.”

With everyone living so close together, odors and noise could be an issue, he said. Herring worries that allowing city chickens might lead to variences for other species, jeopardize public health, generate administrative costs or make neighbors worry about property values.

Wondering what realtors think, he asked one of his constituents, realtor David Phaff, for a consensus from his colleagues. Phaff composed an online survey. Hen-law backers suggested that it was biased, and only realtors were supposed to respond, but the survey was flooded with identical pro-chicken answers.

Phaff is now conducting another online survey. This time, he’s enlisted “an uninvolved third party” to check its objectivity and has added a question about whether the survey seems neutral. Only agents who have closed on or sold a piece of property in the city of Albany since Jan. 1 may respond, and they must identify themselves.

Personally, Phaff thinks that it might be difficult for the city to check up on chickens.

“It’s hard enough to get adequate and consistent code enforcement in the City of Albany,” he said. “They don’t have the manpower to do what they need to do today. How are they going to do any more?”