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Playing Chicken

A movement is growing to allow hens in Albany neighborhoods

Residents, sustainability advocates and a number of local organizations in Albany have recently come together in common support of an uncommon cause—backyard chickens.

Few residents took notice when a city ordinance passed in December 2001 outlawed “farm animal or fowl” within the city limits. Excepting certain variances, animals such as horses, pigs, goats, sheep, chickens and ducks were banished from Albany proper. Prior to 2001, mules, geese and even cattle had been allowed.

The Albany Chickens Coalition is proposing to amend the city code to exempt female chickens. In an open letter to the City Council, the coalition argues that “hens are clean and quiet animals no louder than your average pigeon, no dirtier than your average dog. In addition to providing affordable, fresh, healthy and delicious eggs, chickens also reduce solid waste through the consumption of table scraps and other organic material, provide nitrogen-rich garden fertilizer via waste by-products and reduce backyard pest populations by the consumption of bugs.”

Ordinance No. 115-31—which was prompted by a loud rooster in a residential neighborhood—had few opponents in 2001, but came under scrutiny in recent weeks after a local couple were told they would have to get rid of the chickens they’ve been keeping in their backyard. Believing that they were covered by an educational variance for the school next door, Jen Pursley and Michael Guidice have kept chickens there for eight years.

“It allows us to have a closer connection to our food source,” Pursley told Metroland. “It’s a way to teach our kids where their food comes from, which is something that we both believe is very important. They’re fun to care for and easy to maintain, and fresh eggs in the mornings is really nice too.”

“We feel strongly about issues of urban sustainability,” added Guidice, mentioning that the couple had recently finished remodeling their home on Grand Street to reflect those concerns. “But it’s also a fun hobby. We’re definitely animal people.”

Pursley and Guidice, who also own a dog-walking service in Albany called Hounds on the Hudson, are now working with Albany Common Councilman Dominick Calsolaro (Ward 1) and others to change the law. (For now, their chickens are living next door at the Albany Free School.) Networking through e-mail and social media, Albany Chickens have amassed nearly a thousand signatures for their petition and gained the support of groups such as the Capital District Permaculture Guild and Save the Pine Bush.

“Our goal was to have a thousand signatures by Dec. 6 at the next Common Council meeting,” said Pursley. She said Calsolaro recommended the petition to demonstrate public support for the amendment (that he helped to write), which is based on a current law in Portland, Ore.

“Councilman Calsolaro has really been a key player in this whole thing,” said Guidice. “He was on this the first minute we called him, and he’s been extremely supportive through the whole process.”

The proposed ordinance will be introduced to the City Council on Dec. 6 and, from there, will likely be assigned to a committee by President Pro Tempore Richard Conti. The committee will have time to review the amendment and listen to public statements before making a recommendation to the council. According to Calsolaro, the whole process may take a while; he hasn’t heard much opposition (aside from one comment left on his Facebook page), but said he doesn’t know how the legislation will be received by other council members. “It depends on where the petitions are coming from and those sorts of things,” he said. “Some of the people who voted for the original ordinance are still on the council, and I don’t know if they’ll approve.”

Local food movements increasingly have appeared over the last few years in the United States, often directly alongside environmental sustainability efforts. Heightened awareness of the dangers presented by factory-produced poultry and beef have made the environmental benefits of locally produced foods even more attractive, while the uncertain economy has caused people to look for more ways to be self-dependent.

“Ordinary self-provisioning is the most basic work of human beings,” said local sustainability advocate and public speaker Sharon Astyk. “Until comparatively recently, it was the single biggest project of most humans who have ever lived, and it is fairly natural to us.”

“I think the larger context for backyard chickens in Albany,” she continued, “is the emergence of an awareness of how many dependencies we have on fossil fuels, a stable climate, on complex shipping systems and pricing that we don’t control, and of course all the complexities of food safety. Because of all this, there’s an emerging desire to at least control what we can about the way we eat and feed our kids.”

—Ali Hibbs


Talking Trash

How will Albany and surrounding municipalities deal with a packed landfill?

 

The public has until Friday (Nov. 19) to weigh in on how the Capital Region gets rid of garbage in coming decades, after which the Albany Common Council will vote on whether to adopt the solid-waste management plan and forward it to the Department of Environmental Conservation.

The plan opens the door for Albany and other counties to form a binding authority that could charge user fees. Members would be locked in: They couldn’t withdraw from the authority without approval from the state Legislature.

The plan also considers instituting a pay-as-you-throw policy.

As lead member of the Capital District Solid Waste Partnership, Albany is the only one of 14 member municipalities that decides whether to pass on the plan to the state.

Albany will lose the right to run its dump if it misses the Jan. 1 deadline for filing the plan with the state. The plan includes a generic draft environmental impact statement for the Rapp Road landfill extension that the State approved last year. This GDEIS is due by New Year’s Day.

The landfill extension began accepting trash this summer. It’s expected to run out of space in six or seven years.

A major goal of the plan is flow control—governmental power to dictate where refuse goes for disposal. The Capital District Solid Waste Partnership does not have flow control now.

A surefire way of gaining flow control is to create an authority. At meetings, members of the steering committee that drafted the plan favored this option.

The plan outlines two other alternatives: for the partnership to stay the same size or for it to grow bigger. Growth would mean trying to recruit and get long-term commitments from Rensselaer and Schenectady counties and the Town of Colonie.

Governmental control is possible without an authority, according to Ruth Leistensnider, the attorney hired to advise the city on the solid waste plan. In a Feb. 3 memo to the steering committee, she outlined several mechanisms for establishing “the equivalent to flow control.”

The plan is supposed to summarize disposal and recycling goals through the year 2030, but the timeline stops a decade short, Albany’s Tom Ellis said during an Oct. 25 hearing on the plan.

More than 93 percent of state’s public debt is created by government authorities, said Ravena resident Jim Travers, who attended most steering committee meetings. It is more a bunch of ideas than a fleshed-out plan, he said.

Clough Harbor and Associates, a consulting engineering firm hired by the city, put together most of the plan before the steering committee ever met, Travers said outside the council chambers.

“Deferring all decisions to an as yet uncreated authority” is irresponsible, said Travers. “As long as they make money off of garbage, there’s never going to be an incentive to reduce the amount that they’re receiving.”

Two out of 12 solid waste authorities in the state are troubled, steering committee chairman Michael O’Brien admitted on Oct. 4, when the council voted 14-1 to open the 45-day public-comment period. But, he said, just because there are dysfunctional families, it doesn’t mean that the family can’t be a good institution.

One of the problematic authorities is in Duchess County. The other is shared between Montgomery, Oswego and Schoharie counties. It has been asked to disband by an oversight commission.

While the authority is the most controversial element of the plan, initiatives to recycle more and compost food and vegetation were “almost universally supported” by steering committee members, said O’Brien.

The plan aims to increase recycling to 65 percent by 2020, partly by accepting more types of plastic. The plan also considers food composting, which has worked in Delaware and Ontario, Canada, said O’Brien.

A PowerPoint presentation to the Albany Common Council in June included a list of the 10 most abundant substances chauffeured to the Rapp Road landfill; food waste was the single largest component. Paper came in next.

The plan also encourages product stewardship. That means the state and federal governments place what amounts to a disposal tax on manufacturers for brand new products—electronics, for instance.

The Capital Region Solid Waste Management Partnership has been working on the plan for two years. Its members are Albany, Rensselaer, Bethlehem, East Greenbush, Watervliet, Green Island, New Scotland, Voorheesville, Guilderland, Altamont, Berne, Knox, Westerlo and Rensselaerville.

The partnership’s steering committee is made up of the member towns and other stakeholders, including the state, Albany County, and the Council of Albany Neighborhoods Association. The committee met 14 times between November 2008 and March 2010 to draft the plan.

These meetings were poorly attended, and only 11 of 24 committee members voted that the plan was complete, Ellis told the Common Council on Oct. 4. “About half the municipalities boycotted the planning process in its entirety,” said Ellis. “I don’t think we need a regional solid waste authority.”

The only council member who voted against forwarding the plan that night was Dominick Calsolaro.

“How much was this discussed before it was approved?” he asked. “I think we should know that before we say, ‘Yeah, this is complete and ready to go forward, because I don’t think it is.’ Are all these municipalities going to be willing to really want to share our expenses?”

Ultimately, O’Brien said, “The city of Albany probably wants to get out of the dump business and put it onto somebody else. I don’t think Albany wants to be in the landfill business because it’s full of a lot of headaches.”

If that is truly the case, surmised Travers, maybe the city shouldn’t fast-track that plan to DEC after all.

—Laurie Lynn Fischer

Public comments should be sent to City Clerk John Marsolais. His e-mail address is marsoj.ci.albany.ny.us, and his postal address is City Hall, Room 202, 24 Eagle St., Albany, NY 12207. Copies of the environmental impact statement may be obtained from the city clerk or viewed online at capitalregion landfill.com and albanyny.gov.




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