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Coming Home to Roost

The Albany Common Council passes a law allowing backyard chickens. Will the mayor veto it?

by Jason Chura on May 5, 2011

Last weekend, Mike Guidice and Jen Pursley cleaned out their chicken coops in hopes of preparing for the homecoming of at least part of their eight-bird flock.

On Monday, the Albany Chicken Coalition won a victory when the Common Council voted to pass an ordinance to again allow chickens in Albany backyards. Guidice and Pursley’s birds are a little closer to home.

Their chickens were relocated to the Albany Free School’s coop six months ago after code-enforcement officers informed them that they could not keep the birds on residential property. Since then, the couple founded the coalition and has engaged the public and the Albany Common Council with an information-based grassroots campaign in hopes of changing the law.

The revised bill restricts the size of a backyard flock to five hens and requires that potential bird owners obtain the permission of their surrounding neighbors in order to apply for a permit. The ordinance also limits the total number of permits to 50 citywide, and makes them subject to yearly renewal.

The “Chicken Dance” played as council members entered the chamber and the modest crowd settled in.

“We are at a crossroads,” said Guidice addressing the council. “The next generation that’s coming up is going to be confronted with challenges . . . of energy transition, peak oil, climate change. . . . Here tonight we have an issue in front of us that directly deals with so many of the topics related to the solutions to those problems.”

Another speaker, Betsy Mercogliano, passed out hard-boiled eggs laid by backyard chickens owned by the Albany Free School, which is able to keep a flock due to an educational variance provided for by the current law.

Only one speaker, Vincent Riguso, specifically opposed the ordinance, citing concerns about the repercussions of irresponsible chicken ownership and questioning the wisdom of tackling the issue at a time when the city faces so many pressing budgetary concerns.

In the weeks leading up to the vote, chicken opponents seemed plentiful. A survey that was labeled decidedly anti-chicken was sent to area realtors to assess concerns that the birds might decrease property values. When the survey was compromised by chicken supporters, a second survey was created but, according to Councilman Dominick Calsolaro (Ward 1), the results were never shared with the council.

On Monday, the opposition was conspicuously absent, or at least silent, a fact noted by Calsolaro, the sponsor of the ordinance, as he introduced the revised bill to the council. Calsolaro enumerated some of the changes that had gone into the bill, claiming it contained “more restriction than any other city” he’d found.

Other council members spoke in favor of the legislation, praising it as a step in the right direction toward a more sustainable city.

The deciding vote belonged to Frank Commisso (Ward 15), who admitted to being dispassionate about the issue, but seemed to err on the side of pragmatism in the end.

“I don’t think the government should be telling people, ‘Don’t have birds in your backyard,’ ” Commisso said.  “And meanwhile, even if your neighbor gets birds and you don’t want them, then you can override that. This law is completely written on the side of the neighbor.”

Council members in opposition to the ordinance voiced concern about the cost to the city at a time of fiscal crisis. John Rosenzweig (Ward 8) mentioned that Albany’s small code-enforcement division is already unable to keep up with the aging and abandoned buildings in the city.

“At this point we are trying to do more with less,” Rosenzweig said. “We are going to be overtaxing that department which is already understaffed. ”

“Of all the meetings that I sat in, I didn’t see anybody from code enforcement,” Lester Freeman (Ward 2) said, echoing Rosenzweig’s concern. “I didn’t hear from the experts, I didn’t hear from the people who are actually going to have to go out and oversee this process.”

And James Sano (Ward 9) claimed that his “no” vote was due to his recently becoming a vegetarian.

The legislation passed 8 to 7 with Barbara Smith, Michael O’Brien, Cathy Fahey, Richard Conti, Leah Golby, Anton Konev, Commisso, and Calsolaro supporting the ordinance.

With this hurdle surpassed, the Albany Chicken Coalition now waits to see what will become of the bill when it lands on Mayor Jerry Jennings’ desk. The mayor has 10 days to veto the proposal once he receives a copy, but it is not certain that the mayor will allow the ordinance to become law. If the mayor is unable to be convinced, two more council members would need to be swayed to override the veto. Jennings told the Times Union that he will “research” the issue before making his decision.

The mayor’s potential veto notwithstanding, the Chicken Coalition is pleased with the message this hard-fought victory has sent.

“If a small group of people stay committed, stay positive, and stay engaged with local government, you really can win on issues,” said Guidice. “The chickens was small, but we can build on that victory . . . we can continue and make Albany the place we dream it could be.”