Backyard chickens newest trend in South Hills

Published Jul 18, 2014 at 5:05 pm (Updated Jul 18, 2014 at 5:05 pm)

With names like Scratchy, Ethel, Lorraine, Junebug, Daisy and Email, six chickens living in the backyard of the Lucas family residence in Peters Township are, by ordinance definition, family pets and are not strictly a food source. And as such, they are not in violation of township ordinances and can remain living peacefully in suburbia.

Even though the poultry are considered pets, the family of five does plan to consume the eggs when the young hens mature into full egg production. Featuring the actual birds as the main course for Sunday dinner is not going to happen, the Lucases said.

Raising chickens in often small backyards is legal, at least in Peters Township and also in Mt. Lebanon, where there are few ordinances governing the fowl.

Bethel Park does permit poultry, but only on farms of five or more acres. And in Upper St. Clair Township, chickens are not exactly encouraged, but there is no specific ordinance stating the egg layers are forbidden. Any coops must be at least 200 feet from the nearest property line, making placement of the structure somewhat difficult on half-acre lots.

Daniel and Alexandra Lucas of 100 Cornerstone Court in Venetia have lived in the single-family house on .31-acres in the cluster-style development for about six and a half years and have been raising six chickens for the last five months, Alexandra Lucas said. Eggs just began to appear in the coop last week, but at full production, she expects to collect about 30 fresh eggs a week.

When a neighbor complained to the township about the 32-square-foot chicken coop and the chickens, the family received a citation from the township zoning officer based on the township’s farm ordinance requiring certain animals be housed on a parcel at least 10 acres or more. However, the family appealed to the zoning hearing board July 15 and the citation was declared moot. The township ordinance specifically refers to chickens as small domestic animals – like guinea pigs, rabbits, mice and hamsters – that are permitted in residential areas like the Cornerstone Plan where the Lucases live.

Raising chickens appears to be a new trend, bringing a bit of organic, farm-style living to the suburbs.

Travel north along Washington Road in Mt. Lebanon and a large chicken coop with nine young chicks is slightly visible above the high shrubbery. Amy Bader and her husband, Stephen Bader, an anesthesiologist, purchased the chicks as hatchlings in March. Stephen Bader built the coop following plans found on the Internet using doors the family recycled during renovations after moving into the house about two years ago.

While there are nine young chicks in the coop currently, Amy Bader said the population will be reduced to about four to five hens once the sex of the chickens is determined. The young roosters will go, most likely, to farms in Greene County. There are no plans to expand the size of the coop or to include a rooster, which is needed solely to fertilize the eggs, Amy Bader said. Like the Lucas family in Peters Township, the chickens are being raised for egg production and nothing more. The chickens will not be slaughtered for their meat or feathers.

Unlike Peters Township that has an ordinance permitting fowl in residential areas, Mt. Lebanon has no ordinance regulating or prohibiting chickens or bees, another species not usually associated with suburban areas that appears to be gaining in numbers.

Joseph Berkley, chief inspector/zoning officer in Mt. Lebanon, said there may not be an ordinance about poultry, but the coop falls under the accessory use requirements mandating any such structure, such as a gazebo or a detached garage, must be at least five feet from the property line. Maintaining cleanliness in and around the coop would fall under the health and safety ordinance that also regulates cleaning up after a dog.

To date, Berkley said he has not received any complaints about the Bader’s coop and since there is no ordinance, having nine chickens on the corner lot of a somewhat busy four-lane road is not in violation of any municipal code.

In Upper St. Clair Township, according to Mark Mansfield, assistant township manger, any confining structure, such as a coop, must, by ordinance, be no closer than 200 feet to the adjoining property lines.

As for any known residential chicken coops in the township, Mansfield said he is not aware of any. Unlike neighboring Peters Township where there are a few commercial farms, there are none remaining in Upper St. Clair now that the former Bedner Farm is being developed as a residential plan.

In Bethel Park, chickens are not considered to be pets, said Rodney Sarver, municipal building code official/fire marshal. He said he is unaware of any coops in residential areas, however chicks are fine on farms of five acres or more.

According to the ordinance, chickens are considered gallinaceous fowl, meaning a bird that nests on the ground, like a turkey or a goose.

“We have received a lot of calls over the last few years about raising chickens,” Sarver said. If raising chickens is legal in other locations in Allegheny County, people moving to Bethel Park often don’t understand why the municipality prohibits the birds except on farms, Sarver said.

And even on farms, ordinances state any building used to house animals, such as cows or chickens, must be at least 200 feet from the property lines. He’s even fielded a few calls about raising bees, but owning an apiary falls under regulations through the state, Sarver said.

He has no interest in raising chickens.

“But, to each their own,” he said.

The Lucas family decided to built a coop, which took Daniel Lucas about six weekends to build, and to raise chickens for several reasons, including encouragement from their three children.

“It’s a great learning experience,” Alexandra Lucas said. Another reason is one of the children has a form of autism. “The chickens make him calm, and he loves to collect the eggs,” she added.

Amy Bader remembers being fascinated with her uncle’s chickens when, as a child, she visited his coop near Harrisburg, an experience she would like her four children to have.

The Bader’s coop sits near the family’s garden and includes a laying box, from which the eggs are collected. Production is still low until the hens mature. Until then, the family will continue to purchase eggs at the grocery store.

Once a fresh, organic egg is eaten, the store-bought ones are never the same.

“You can see a difference in the yolks,” Amy Bader said. “There is a more intense color.”

The hens eat feed purchased from farm stores, and table scraps, Amy Bader said. The chicks especially love peas and corn, she added, and often come to the coop door upon seeing her approach.

Cleaning the coop is a weekly chore, Alexandra Lucas said, much like cleaning out a hamster cage, only much larger.

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