The Food Police Blotter tracks the actions of government agencies in denying the right to produce, sell, obtain and consume the foods of our choice. This open letter from Jeff DelVecchio describes how it was not his local zoning department but rather the town Board of Health that prohibited him from keeping a backyard flock of chickens on his land to provide eggs for his family. The New Milford Board of Health even prevented farms in the town from having chickens on their property. The Health Department is dictating what foods people can produce on their own property for their own consumption—the author explains below.
My name is Jeff DelVecchio. I live in New Milford, New Jersey, a small suburb of New York City, with my wife and three young boys. The standard lot size here is 75’ x 100’ with some properties being 100’ x 100’ and still others 50’ x 100’. My property is 100’ x 100’ or roughly 1/4 acre. There are two small farms in town, the largest being three acres. We have no agriculture zoning.
In 1968 the Board of Health passed an ordinance prohibiting the keeping of all poultry except pigeons. This ban includes the farms. Nine years ago one of the farmers asked about keeping chickens, and he was told to read the ordinance. I did not realize this when I purchased six laying hens in April 2011. The following outlines my experience trying to get the ordinance prohibiting poultry changed to allow small flocks of laying hens.
In April 2011, I built a predator-proof, rodent-proof, and escape-proof chicken coop and purchased six baby hens to raise as egg-layers in my backyard. As the father of three young boys, a self-sufficient lifestyle is important to me. This is no easy task here, but we do our best. Our house has 45 solar panels, we drive two Prius (hybrid) cars, drink organic milk (raw if we are in Pennsylvania), we grow many different vegetables, our small greenhouse houses an aquaponics system, and so on. Chickens seemed like a natural fit.
I did a lot of research before purchasing the chickens, but I never thought to check the local laws. That was my biggest mistake. In September 2011, I received a violation notice from the local Board of Health saying I was in violation of an ordinance prohibiting the keeping of poultry in town and needed to remove the chickens within two weeks. I called the health inspector and told her I was going to try to get the law changed and she gave me an extension while I petitioned the board. In November I went to a meeting of the local governing body, mayor and council, where I was told this was a Board of Health issue and that the governing body had no control over it.
|Jeff’s son, Benjamin, with Scrappy Coco, an Ameraucana egg-laying hen. Scrappy Coco and her five feathered friends have been relocated by court order. Benjamin routinely asks when the chickens are coming home.
I attended the December meeting of the Board of Health and discussed the issue with them, at length. I provided them with information about backyard chickens and sample ordinances from other towns. I asked them to change the law to allow the keeping of chickens for the sole purpose of egg production. They told me they would discuss it further and let me know.
In January 2012, I received a letter from the board denying my request to change the ordinance. The letter stated I had 45 days to remove the chickens from my property. I sent another letter to the board stating my intention to continue pursuing this matter and requesting a reason for the denial. The board never responded to my request. I did not remove the chickens, and on February 28, 2012, I received a summons to appear in court for violation of the ordinance. I attended the March board meeting where I was told they could not discuss the matter due to the impending court case.
I appeared in court on March 14, 2012. The judge fined me $500 for violating the Board of Health ordinance even after I told him I was still trying to get the ordinance changed. The judge told me that this was a health code violation so it must be serious and he was imposing the maximum fine. I was given one week to remove the chickens or face additional fines of $500 per day. The chickens were relocated the following Saturday. I attended the next meeting of the Board of Health where, after a lengthy and heated discussion, I was told the decision of the board was final and the matter was closed. All of my inquiries to the governing body were met with the same response: the Board of Health is an autonomous agency and there is nothing they can do to help me. There is no system in place for appealing any decision of the Board of Health. I have no recourse other than legal action.
In May 2015 a local man, Joe Loonam, contacted me about chickens in New Milford. This gentleman does not want to raise chickens but feels the issue is not one of public health and therefore is not under the jurisdiction of the Board of Health. During the course of his research, Joe could find no other towns in the area that have Board of Health ordinances banning chickens. This reinforces his position that this is not a public health issue. Joe believes the board should nullify their ordinance, dating 1968, banning the keeping of poultry because it has no relevance today. Joe met with the board at their June meeting. He presented them with over 100 pages of documentation indicating the safety of backyard flocks. He discussed the issue with them at length and left with the assurance that they would discuss the matter further, review the information he provided, and render a decision at a later date. The next day, Joe received an email from the borough attorney stating the board ruled not to change the ordinance. The attorney also stated that because the board is fully autonomous, the only recourse is litigation against the borough.
While I was keeping chickens, the only complaint the Health Department ever received was that I was illegally keeping chickens. They never received any complaints regarding noise, noxious odors, rodent infestation, etc. No one that was exposed to the chickens ever became ill due to that exposure. Surely, my experience has demonstrated that the keeping of backyard chickens does not present a health hazard. During this entire ordeal, several families submitted letters to the Board of Health supporting the keeping of chickens. The board denied ever receiving these letters even though I personally hand delivered some of them. The local Boy Scouts troop asked to discuss the matter with the board. The board never responded to them and went so far as to say they never received the hand delivered letter.
The board’s meetings are held at 4:15 in the afternoon making it very difficult for most residents to attend. Another resident who was interested in keeping chickens took off work to attend a meeting and ask the board to change its ordinance. Shortly before the meeting was scheduled to begin, he was told it was being cancelled because the board did not have enough members available for a quorum. Due to family obligations, this resident has put his backyard chicken plans on hold.
I contacted the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund so that others could hear my story. I would like to thank everyone for taking the time to read this.
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