Proponents of enforcing Unity Township’s current zoning ordinance which bans raising backyard chickens on residential properties testified during a public hearing Tuesday.
Three residents of Lawson Heights testified before the Unity Township Zoning Hearing Board against Jeff and Kristin Kuhns’ appeal of a zoning violation the couple received in July regarding the 20 chickens they raise on a 0.46-acre lot along Range Street.
The Kuhnses are seeking a zoning variance which would allow them to keep their birds.
At the two previous hearings — each curtailed due to time constraints — only witnesses who supported the Kuhns’ appeal testified.
Zoning hearing board members Jim Kelley, Jackie Nindel and Tim Thomas are expected to make a decision on the couple’s appeal as early as March 23, though township officials said the decision could come at a later special meeting.
By that point, township solicitor Gary Falatovich and attorney David Toal, who is representing the Kuhnses, are to have submitted findings of fact and a suggested decision to the zoning hearing board based on testimonies from the public hearings regarding the Kuhns’ appeal.
Township zoning officer Harry Hosack testified on Tuesday that he helped write the provision banning chickens on properties having less than two acres when the township enacted the current zoning ordinance in 1991.
After receiving complaints from neighbors, Hosack said he investigated the Kuhns’ property and subsequently issued a notice of violation. He informed the Kuhnses of their options, which included appealing the violation by filing for a zoning variance — or finding another place to keep the birds.
The zoning ordinance violation dated July 13 cited from the 1991 ordinance, which states: “Chickens are considered farm animals and are not permitted to be kept on properties having less than two acres.”
The Kuhnses had 20 days to get rid of the fowl or potentially face a minimum $300 fine if they chose not to appeal.
James Ross, a resident of Range Street for more than 16 years, testified against the couple’s appeal for a variance. He said he learned of the Kuhns’ chickens about eight to 10 months ago.
“I heard them, I could smell them,” he said.
Ross alleges that on Nov. 29, he witnessed a hawk fly into the fencing around one of the chicken coops.
The following afternoon, Ross said he saw Kristin Kuhns holding the hawk “belly up” and put it into a cage with a blanket overtop.
He alleges Jeff Kuhns then started throwing a kitchen knife “three or four times inside the cage trying to kill the hawk” before it flew away.
“It is illegal to kill a hawk in Pennsylvania. Therefore, the ordinance should remain as is,” Ross said.
However, Kristin Kuhns denied Ross’s allegation. She said on the date in question, she heard “abnormal chicken noises” coming from inside the coop and noticed the birds were “clearly distressed.” After finding a hawk inside the coop, Kuhns said she seized the hawk and later told game commissioners who came to question her that it flew away.
“They asked me, ‘Did you harm the hawk?’” I said, “Absolutely not.”
She said none of the chickens were seriously injured.
Residents had previously raised concerns about the chickens attracting predator animals into the neighborhood.
In reference to the hawk, Ross said, “What other predators are trying to get into the chicken coop? If there are no predators, then why are they transporting the chickens every night into a wooden enclosed shed?”
Ross also said he has observed a manure pile on their property consisting of bedding from the chicken coop which he can smell from his property.
Another resident of Range Street, Lisa Flanyak, testified that she witnessed the Kuhnses cleaning out the beds of the chicken coups in late November.
“Their yard was a muddy mess (afterwards),” she said. “It was like a pool of water.”
Kristin Kuhns, however, said this is a normal cleaning as part of a “deep litter method.” This method calls for bedding material and droppings to compost inside the coop instead of being cleaned out and replaced regularly. She said the composting is then placed into bins and the coops are cleaned out about once every six months.
Steve Stanish, a poultry technician of more than 35 years, completed an inspection of the Kuhnses’ chicken coops in September. He said on Tuesday, “When I was there, I smelled no odor. They did have composting while I was there.”
He said the couple’s compositing is within best management practices, and he doesn’t see any health hazards. Kuhns also entered into evidence an article from Penn State Extension about composting guidelines that the couple follows.
While Flanyak is “not aware of a smell” coming from the manure pile, she said, “What bothers me the most is the noise. There’s not a room in my house where I cannot hear those roosters when they crow. They’re so loud.”
Flanyak has also testified there have been times when the chickens crossed over onto her property.
Another resident of Range Street, James Sowerbrower, testified that the chickens cause a “routine disruption similar to a barking dog that is a problem.” He believes the ordinance should be enforced since they are “put in place for the benefit of the majority.”
Kristen Kuhns, who originally testified in September, submitted several medical records as evidence on Tuesday — including a letter from her personal care provider asking that Kuhns be allowed to keep the chickens since they provide emotional support and improve mental health.
Kuhns said township officials required these records be submitted as public evidence in this hearing.
“I’m giving what I’m comfortable with as far as my medical records to demonstrate need, to demonstrate hardship and to demonstrate why we are asking for a variance,” she said.
Kuhns also entered several Facebook posts from the couple’s “Kuhns Huhn House” page into evidence, suggesting they never sold any eggs from their chickens, rather gave them away to neighbors and friends for free. The posts Kuhns submitted also indicate the couple did not accept payment for any eggs and they “just want to help the community.”
Last month, township solicitor Gary Falatovich entered into evidence multiple Facebook posts from the couple’s “Kuhns Huhn House” page which implied they were selling eggs from the chickens.
“It’s my feeling there were very cherry picked and only went up to May 2020,” she said on Tuesday.
Darnell Biss of Range Street was unable to attend Tuesday’s hearing. Biss previously complained about the chickens at an Aug. 20 public forum held by the township. She also circulated a petition over the summer objecting to the Kuhns’ chickens which was submitted as evidence Tuesday.
The Unity Township Planning Commission will hold a public hearing 6 p.m. Thursday regarding whether there should be modifications to the current zoning ordinance to relax the requirements for the keeping of chickens in residential areas in the township.
Tuesday’s hearing was the latest chapter in what’s become a hot-button issue in the township, along with nearby municipalities such as Derry Borough and North Huntingdon Township.