A Pennsylvania couple is fighting an inane local ban on raising a handful of ducks and chickens in their backyard.
In August, officials in Wellsboro, Pennsylvania, warned residents Anna Wales and Raquel Rogers that they'd have to get rid of the four ducks and four chickens they housed in their backyard. A subsequent hearing affirmed the ban.
Adding to the controversy is the fact Craig West, the borough council president, who lives on the same street as Wales and Rogers, reported the couple and their flocks to the city.
Wellsboro's poorly written code prohibits keeping honey bees, poisonous reptiles or spiders, or "any live swine or pig, live chicken, turkey, pigeon or other domestic or wild fowl, goats, alpacas, and other species." The Wellsboro council says it's concerned that allowing residents to raise livestock in their backyards will lead to complaints over noise or odors.
Wales and Rogers, who've already been fined $7,000 for refusing to comply with the chicken ban, are scheduled to have their request for a variance heard before the Wellsboro Borough Council on Wednesday. A court date on the matter has also been scheduled for next week—though the couple's fines continue to accumulate.
Wales and Rogers are fighting those fines. I don't blame them. According to a report at NorthCentralPA.com, the couple say they were willing to find a new home for their ducks and chickens. But reports also say West and another councilor urged them to rezone their property so that the council could take action on backyard livestock. So Wales and Rogers say they did just that.
"However, the council then failed to pass a vote allowing birds in rural residential," the report indicates.
People choose to raise chickens in their backyard, as I explain in my book, Biting the Hands that Feed Us: How Fewer, Smarter Laws Would Make Our Food System More Sustainable, to provide themselves not just with fresh eggs but also with free fertilizer and pest control. And Wellsboro, quaint and rural, seems like exactly the sort of place one might encounter owners of backyard chickens and ducks.
In fact, just last year the Audubon Society designated Wellsboro as "a Bird Town." Audubon Bird Towns, the group says, are so designated because they demonstrate "a healthy, more sustainable environment for birds and people." Ironically, the group presented the Bird Town designation to none other than Craig West, the same borough president who seems intent on making Wellsboro a bird-free town.
Conflicts that center on raising small animals for food in one's backyard aren't new. In a 2016 op-ed in the Des Moines Register, for example, I highlighted the plight of Clare Heinrich, an Iowa high schooler whose backyard beehives—which Heinrich used to produce honey that had won three blue ribbons at the Iowa State Fair—had run afoul of local law in Urbandale, Iowa, that deemed honey bees illegal livestock. The city ordered Heinrich to remove the hives or face thousands of dollars in fines.
Thankfully, even as Wellsboro and Urbandale treat small-scale hobby farmers as pariahs, other cities and towns are responding positively to residents' interest in raising animals for food. Earlier this year, for example, residents in Pelham, New Hampshire, fought back against a 2019 ordinance that banned many backyard livestock animals. In March, in a "landslide" vote, the town repealed the ban.
Perhaps surprisingly, many bigger U.S. cities today feature more permissive rules for raising small food animals than do many smaller cities and towns—even ones such as Wellsboro that are located in rural areas. As I detail in Biting the Hands that Feed Us, backyard poultry ownership has spread across the country, from Los Angeles to Miami to New York City. And cities such as Seattle, Denver, and Salt Lake City have passed good rules in recent years to facilitate that ownership.
To oppose bans on owning and raising backyard chickens, as I do, is not to say that the practice can't nor shouldn't be regulated. It can and should. For example, nearly every city ordinance I've read that allows raising backyard chickens also sets reasonable ground rules for doing so that includes prohibiting homeowners from raising noisy roosters.
Indeed, I speak out in favor of such reasonable limitations in Biting the Hands that Feed Us. Sadly, though, prohibitions of backyard poultry stretch well beyond reason.
"Bird law in this country is not governed by reason," lamented renowned (though sadly fictional) Pennsylvania bird lawyer Charlie Kelly several years ago. As Wellsboro's campaign against fresh eggs makes clear, Kelly's complaint still rings true today.