Amherst’s Zoning Board is chicken – of chickens.
The town officials have denied their first application for chicken rearing in the town, despite the fact that the Town Board recently created a special permit allowing chickens as long as neighbors approved.
Allowing the chicks would “simply invite others to come in and request permits to raise increasingly more intrusive types of livestock in residential zones,” according to the town’s Zoning Board of Appeals.
But others balk at the notion that chickens are a gateway animal.
“I don’t think you want chickens today and elephants tomorrow,” said Amherst Council Member Mark A. Manna.
The Amherst debate mirrors other fights throughout the region, where a handful of residents who want to keep chickens have battled opponents and town officials who worry about smells, noise and disease.
“We generally find out about it when people call up and say, ‘I can’t sleep, because my neighbor has chickens and the rooster is up at four in the morning making noise,’ ” said Jeffrey Schieber, code enforcement officer for the Town of West Seneca. “At that point, we say, ‘Either get a variance or get rid of them.’ ”
West Seneca charges $150 for a permit, which is on par with Amherst, Grand Island, Hamburg and other towns that allow the birds.
The Town of Tonawanda is weighing the issue now and has had some inquiries for chickens, according to Carl Heimiller, supervising code enforcement officer.
“We don’t have the means to do it yet,” Heimiller said. “At this point, we have to say we prohibit it.”
Chicken-rearing advocates in the suburbs often point out that two of the region’s urban centers – Buffalo and North Tonawanda – have already approved permits for chickens.
“I’ve had my hens for five years, and we’ve had absolutely no problems,” said Monique Watts, a West Side resident who pushed Buffalo leaders to allow chickens. “The codes and processes for permits are pretty restrictive.”
Most towns cap the number of birds allowed at fewer than 10, and roosters are outlawed because of noise restrictions.
Perhaps nowhere is animal rearing more “in” than East Aurora, which recently allowed not only chickens but pigs as household pets.
“You get a different mindset in different places,” said Joyce Jezewski, clerk treasurer of the village. “It really depends on the person and how they take care of things. Chickens, dogs, cats – we haven’t had any requests for cows yet, but who knows?”
Amherst, though, has shaped up as a major battleground because of its size and character, which ranges from rural and agricultural in some parts to highly dense in others.
At the center of it all is Brooks Anderson and his daughter, Amelia, 6.
If there is an Amherst way to build a chicken coop, Anderson may have pulled it off.
The structure he built in his tony Snyder neighborhood boasts painted trim, planted shrubs and, for aesthetics, small flower boxes.
It’s the perfect home for Fluffy, Waffle, Fred, Ruby, Snooki and JWoww – the chickens Amelia, 6, has been raising for a few months.
But unless Amherst officials change their minds later today, the Henhouse from Heaven will soon go vacant.
“I’m trying to teach my daughter a sense of responsibility and where our food comes from,” Anderson said. “We garden, too – thank God there’s no ordinance against that.”
Until recently, there was one against chicken rearing.
That changed when the Town Board created a special permit allowing chickens as long as there were no objections from neighbors.
So it came as a surprise to Anderson and the board members when his application – deemed a “model” for all other chicken owners – was flatly denied.
The debate has ruffled the feathers of town officials, some of whom say Amherst just isn’t the place for farm animals, and others who say a few hens are harmless.
“Some people were concerned that if you have chickens, then you’re going to have to allow pot-bellied pigs, and you’re going to have cows in your backyard that need milking everyday,” said Council Member Steven Sanders. “I don’t think we’re trying to turn our suburb into a rural area. This isn’t a slippery slope.”
It has also drawn comparisons to another hot zoning topic – the controversial Hyatt Place hotel – that is still a sore point for many town residents.
“They roll out the red carpet for six-story hotels in residents’ backyards but draw the line on a few backyard chickens for fear of irreparable harm to a neighborhood,” said Manna, the council member.
“I’ve had people write to me, saying, ‘Maybe you should build the chicken coop six stories high, then it’ll get approved,’ ” quipped Anderson, who spent roughly $600 to build the coop.
He added that all the neighbors adjacent to his house have expressed their support for the chickens, and some even watched the animals while the Andersons went on vacation.
But two other residents of the street sent an anonymous letter through a law firm opposing the animals, and Supervisor Barry A. Weinstein said their opinions should be considered.
“If there’s two neighbors within 100 feet who are against it, I don’t think it should go in there,” Weinstein said.
The Zoning Board will decide whether to reconsider the issue at its meeting tonight, town officials said.
If the board sticks to its initial decision, Anderson – the first town resident to apply for the permit – says he will sue the town.
“I wanted to go about this the right way,” he said. “In retrospect, I shouldn’t have. I should have just built my chicken coop and had the chickens in my yard.”
“The irony is,” he added, “the chickens are really not that big of a deal. We may not even keep them after this year. But if I had to go through this, imagine what people will have to go through for something that actually matters.”
Choosing sides in the chicken debate
Here are the municipalities in the region that have ruled on whether chicken rearing is allowed on residential
Chicken rearing allowed, with permit:
Amherst, Buffalo, East Aurora, Grand Island, Hamburg, North Tonawanda and West Seneca.
Chicken rearing not allowed:
Niagara Falls, Town of Tonawanda, Lancaster and Lackawanna.