Unity Township planners on Thursday heard from about 10 residents on whether a township zoning ordinance should be relaxed to allow for backyard chickens to be raised on properties less than two acres.

The township’s planning commission will use the public’s input to make a recommendation to township supervisors on whether amending the ordinance is necessary. Under the township’s 1991 zoning ordinance, chickens are considered farm animals and are not permitted to be kept on properties having less than two acres.

Kristin and Jeff Kuhns of Range Street have been spearheading the effort to relax the township’s zoning regulations on backyard chickens — as the couple is appealing a zoning violation they received in July regarding the 20 birds they raise on a 0.46-acre lot in Lawson Heights.

Kristin Kuhns on Thursday advocated for the township to create a new, separate ordinance that would allow for residents to raise backyard chickens — one that would include specific guidelines for ownership, such as a fee or permit.

“I think this is a good compromise because it gives the township some control over their chicken population while allowing residents to keep backyard chickens,” she said.

Kuhns cited a recent surge in popularity in raising backyard chickens, noting that more than 12 million Americans now own chickens. She also offered that the number of people raising backyard chickens has spiked since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in March. She made a point that raising chickens is a sustainable practice, adding that chicken manure makes for a good garden compost.

“We feel that the 1991 ordinance is a little bit out of date,” she said.

Kuhns also shared the experience of her difficult search for the township’s zoning ordinance online before she and her husband purchased the birds. She said the ordinance itself is confusing and ambiguous.

After receiving a zoning violation, Jennifer Parella of Ridgeway Road said she got rid of her birds. She agrees that a new ordinance should be created since she “had a very hard time navigating the (township’s) website and finding any ordinances that spoke on it.”

Elizabeth Murphy of White School Road supports relaxing regulations on backyard chicken ownership since it is educational for children and families. Murphy said she grew up with access to a farm.

“I currently have a four-month-old son who I would like to see grow up in a similar fashion, learning some of the certain disciplines I learned,” she said.

For children, raising chickens teaches responsibilities, commitment and organization, Murphy said. She said it’s also an opportunity for students to get involved with their local 4-H programs.

“It’s something that is encouraged in a lot of different school districts now, because It gets your kids outside,” she said.

Kuhns also tried to dispel several “myths” about raising chickens, positing that birds do not smell; they do not decrease property value, and that raising chickens does not require a lot of land.

“Not all chickens should be considered livestock or farm animals,” Kuhns said. “They can be pets, they can be service animals, they can be emotional support animals.”

Several residents also argued that raising backyard chickens should not be considered as a commercial farm or business. They said it should be considered a permitted agricultural use in residential districts.

Adam Liske of Whitfield Drive said his family has had six hens — no roosters — for more than a year-and-a-half on a less than 0.5-acre lot. Township solicitor Gary Falatovich said the zoning ordinance isn’t currently being enforced while officials weigh a zoning amendment.

At a public hearing with township supervisors in August, Liske suggested regulations for raising backyard chickens, including setting a minimum size for a coop and requiring fencing for chickens. He also previously suggested having residents sign off on allowing their neighbors to keep birds before they purchase them.

Jeff Kuhns spoke of the financial implications for local businesses if the zoning ordinance isn’t changed. He stated that Tractor Supply Co. at Laurel 30 Plaza employs 15-20 people who could potentially lose their jobs if chickens continue to be prohibited. He noted that more than half of their business comes from residents purchasing chicken supplies.

He and other residents noted the City of Latrobe’s ordinance which permits chickens to be kept on residential lots for noncommercial purposes.

He encouraged township officials to amend the ordinance, making it “clear about what everyone can and cannot do,” like Latrobe’s.

The township’s planning commission also heard from opponents of backyard chickens who encourage township officials not to make any changes to the current zoning ordinance.

Dave Kmetz of Frye Farm Road said the reason township zoning officer Harry Hosack has issued zoning violations to residents raising chickens is because their neighbors complained.

“I was one of the residents who called Harry. I had chickens through my yard eating my strawberries on my bank. That’s careless,” Kmetz said.

He also expressed concern about property value if an adjacent property has a chicken coop near the property line.

Jim Hill of Range Street — neighbor to the Kuhnses — said their 20 birds frequently disrupt his sleep.

“It’s very disrupting to our lives. We hear it all day long,” he said.

Hill hopes the ordinance remains as it is written.

“The laws were put into place to protect us,” he said.

Lisa Flanyak, who lives with Hill, was emotional as she expressed a similar sentiment.

“It affects my whole life. I have no peace and quiet at home anymore,” she said.

Jim Ross of Range Street lives across from the Kuhnses. He asked township officials to not change the ordinance.

“It is very annoying every morning before daylight, the roosters are cocking off,” he said. “And the stench from their feces is horrible.”

Officials said residents can submit evidence to township building department secretary Gail Rause at grause@unitytownship.org up until the planning commission’s meeting at 7 p.m. March 2.

Falatovich said once planners make a recommendation to supervisors, a public hearing would be held before — if any — amendments to the zoning ordinance are made.

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