Joseph F. Berenato
Can chickens be raised?
Some want them in local backyards
HAMMONTON—Hammonton has long been recognized as an agricultural community, even before its incorporation in 1866. While the growth of produce is allowed—and often encouraged—in backyard gardens throughout the town, another agricultural staple—livestock—is only permitted in certain areas of the town, including chickens.
Mark Rogers, the town’s code enforcement officer, acknowledged a growing desire among residents to own chickens, but “they can’t have them.”
“They can’t; that’s all there is to it ... People are under the impression that if it doesn’t say that you can’t have chickens, that means you can have them. Actually, it’s the other way around; it has to say you can have them,” Rogers said.
Rogers referred to Chapter 175 Section 145A(3) of the Code of the Town of Hammonton.
“Where this chapter is silent as to the allowance of a use in a zone district, such silence shall be interpreted to mean that the use is not permitted. A use is not permitted in any zone district of the town unless specifically included as a use or category of use in this chapter and in the specific zone district,” the code states.
“That’s what everybody has to understand ... There’s nothing in the code that says you cannot have chickens; it doesn’t work that way,” Rogers said.
Rogers said that chickens are only allowed in the Agricultural Production (AP) and Rural Residential Zones, provided that the lot size in the latter is five acres or greater.
Mayor Stephen DiDonato said that lot sizes in other residential neighborhoods account for some of the reasoning behind the use allowances.
“A lot of those lots are 10,000 square feet; they’re 100 by 100, some of those small lots in town. If you start putting chickens, it could impact the neighbors ... There are some people that do want chickens, and there are a lot more people who don’t want them in those neighborhoods,” DiDonato said.
One such resident in favor of the idea is Tara Devlin, who describes herself as “an advocate for owning backyard chickens.”
“Last year, we all experienced a new normal way of life: lockdowns, food shortages, financial hardships and isolation. Ironically, having backyard chickens can be part of the solution,” Devlin said.
Devlin said that maintaining a flock of backyard chickens requires no more than six hens.
“Chickens will produce eggs absent the presence of a male. Roosters are not necessary, thankfully, for they are far too noisy and can be quite aggressive. Eggs are one of nature’s most perfect and nutrient rich food. The number of eggs laid annually is dependent on the breed of chicken, its health and happiness. With a flock of six hens, the owner can easily get at least a couple of eggs each morning. Hens do make a little noise upon laying eggs—as if an announcement is being made—but is nowhere near the decibel level a rooster would produce,” Devlin said.
Devlin said that most residential backyards have ample room for chickens.
“The basic formula for required space is five square feet per hen. The hens should be allowed to free range during the day. This is the most beneficial setup for both the owner and hens themselves. The yard should be enclosed with a six-foot-high fence. Although most breeds do not fly, they can jump and flap their wings to navigate lower fences,” Devlin said.
Devlin said that backyard chickens can offer therapeutic benefits.
“Contrary to common beliefs, chickens are very intelligent, social and loving creatures. If raised with kindness and human interaction, they will become some of the best pets one can have. Chickens will learn their names, come when called and relish being petted and held. This attachment to humans is highly beneficial to people of all ages. Those who live alone can have a ‘fan club’ thrilled to see them each day. Petting an animal has been scientifically proven to relieve stress and alleviate symptoms of depression. Children exposed to chickens can learn kindness, empathy and the responsibility of care. Chickens can be even more psychologically beneficial to children and adults with developmental disorders, especially autism,” Devlin said.
However, Rogers said that chickens are not classified as pets and “can be a nuisance.”
“They can also breed disease. They can bring rodents, and they can bring other varmints that might hunt them,” Rogers said.
Devlin said that chicken health is “easily maintained and quite simple.”
“Chickens do not bathe in water to cleanse themselves. They only need a small area of dirt or sand in which they can take a ‘dust bath.’ They will roll around in the substrate—which gets under the feathers, removes dead skin and protects them from mites. Keeping the coop clean and dry relatively eliminates any chance of pathogens harmful to the hens. Of course, fresh, clean water must be available at all times,” Devlin said.
Devlin said that chicken coops provide security for the chickens.
“A coop is where the hens will roost at night, be safe from nocturnal predators and where they will lay their eggs in the morning. Once hens are familiarized with their coop, they will go into it before dusk on their own accord. The owner would simply have to secure the door at night and then open it in the morning,” Devlin said.
Currently, there are no restrictions on coops—or other accessory buildings—in AP zones, though there are in Rural Residential Zones, according to Chapter 175-150B(5).
“No building, fenced run or other enclosure for the shelter of fowl or other farm livestock shall be closer than 200 feet from any street, 100 feet from any property line or 500 feet from any existing residential dwelling unit, whichever is greater; nor shall any building or fenced run be erected or used for the shelter of more than 25 head of fowl or more than 4 head of other farm livestock in any case,” the code states.
Rogers reiterated that, outside of the AP Zones and Rural Residential zones—with five acres of land or more—having chickens is a violation of town code.
“When we bring them to court, the court has supported us. It is a violation ... They have to get rid of them. How the judge handles that is really up to him. If they’ve been warned in writing that they have to get rid of the chickens and have been given a sufficient amount of time, if they haven’t done it I do request a fine and the removal of the chickens. What usually happens is, they have a certain amount of time to remove the chickens; if they don’t remove them by that time, there’s an additional penalty of $1,000 a day; that’s the normal thing when you violate a court order,” Rogers said.
Devlin commented that backyard chickens have benefits.
“Naturally, they will selflessly serve the owner and hence the community; as a food waste disposal system, producer of natural fertilizer, insect eliminator and producer of protein/nutrient rich eggs, all while being emotionally and psychologically supportive. What friend do you have that cleans up your dinner scraps, fertilizes your garden, kills all the bugs in your yard, makes you breakfast every morning, loves to be with you no matter what and asks for almost nothing in return?” Devlin said.
DiDonato said that there is a process to allow residents to petition to change the code.
“If the residents would like, they can just come before the town, and we’ll do a survey and see. Right now, what we show is that there are many more who do not want chickens in some of those neighborhoods ... They have to come in front of town council, and we’ll have to sit down and figure it out and go from there,” DiDonato said.