I’ve been a little reluctant to offer any commentary on the New Rochelle chicken controversy, because this subject has already received a level of media attention way out of scale with its importance. (A friend in Manhattan heard about it on the video newscast in the back of a yellow taxi!) But since the chicken has already left the barn, I may as well add my two cents.
First, some background …
Current New Rochelle law restricts farm animals to properties larger than two acres. The law treats all farm animals in exactly the same fashion, meaning cows and goats get lumped in with fowl in a one-size-fits-all policy. New Rochelle has not been an agricultural community for a long time, so these regulations hadn’t been on anyone’s agenda since their adoption in the 1990s.
Then, a couple of months ago, I received letters from two different sources — entirely uncoordinated and independent of each other — both requesting that New Rochelle modify its animal husbandry regulations so that residents on smaller properties could raise a few chickens and, perhaps, eat eggs for breakfast without a drive to the market.
In response, I worked with our Corporation Counsel to craft a revised law that would allow homeowners to keep up to six hens (no roosters!), with some reasonable standards for cleanliness, containment, and setbacks from adjoining properties. Fresh eggs for home consumption would be in, while raising chickens for commercial purposes would still be out. I thought the narrow legislation would receive little public comment and be adopted by the Council in a routine manner.
Boy, was I wrong! Two big articles in the Journal News, New York City television, letters and emails from various sources, plus the aforementioned taxi spot. Everybody seemed to have an opinion. And, let’s face it, stick the words “chicken” and “City Council” in the same sentence and you’re likely to step in a punchline.
What concerned me about all this attention was not that people might disagree with my view or have a little fun — that’s fine, of course — but rather that the general public would get the mistaken impression that the City Council was spending all of its time debating chickens, at the expense of more pressing issues. (In fact, the great chicken debate consumed very little of our time.) So whenever the subject came up, I tried to put it in proper perspective.
In the end, a majority of Council Members felt that the new rules would be in conflict with most people’s expectations for a suburban way of life, and the proposed law was rejected last week by a 4 to 3 vote.
I’ll confess to being a bit disappointed. Even if the impact on New Rochelle would have been slight, there is a larger discussion worth having about our relationship as consumers with the food supply, and about how to integrate sustainable living into suburbia. If you haven’t read any of Michael Pollan’s terrific books, I recommend The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which is both thought-provoking and a lot of fun.
Maybe we’ll be able to reconsider the subject in the future, but for now we’ve got bigger fish to fry.