In Chester County, an evolving animal ordinance most fowl

Natasha Kearns feeds her backyard hens at her West Brandywine Twp. home. After her neighbor complained, supervisors will decide about reclassifying the "pets."
Natasha Kearns feeds her backyard hens at her West Brandywine Twp. home. After her neighbor complained, supervisors will decide about reclassifying the "pets." (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 19, 2013

Backyard hens have been ruffling residents' feathers in a quiet corner of Chester County just north of Coatesville.

Wayne and Natasha Kearns, who bought their home on 1.84 acres in West Brandywine Township in 2003, began raising chickens six years ago to supply their eggs.

Eggs for their kitchen table, chickens as lessons for their five children, whom Natasha, 39, home-schools.

"We believe it's a quality-of-life issue," said Wayne Kearns, 50, a railroad-equipment mechanic.

Until early last year, the family had more than a dozen chickens, all hens, penned near the bottom of a slope on their lawn.

That was when a neighbor's complaint prompted West Brandywine to notify the family that its Keeping of Animals ordinance allowed only six "pets" on nonagricultural land.

With two dogs, the Kearnses gave away all but four of the chickens, one of which soon became a hawk's breakfast.

But hawks aren't alone in circling the hens.

Since the Kearnses protested the restriction in May, West Brandywine has written 10 draft revisions of the animal ordinance. That's because "many people wanted to be heard," said Thomas McCaffrey, chairman of the board of supervisors.

The supervisors will consider draft No. 10 at their meeting Thursday, and if approved, it could be groundbreaking - among other things, it would classify chickens as agricultural livestock rather than pets. Apparently, then, the Kearnses would be able to increase their flock.

"I've never heard of any other township putting this requirement" on nonfarm chickens, said Cheryl Fairbairn, director of the Chester County office of the Penn State Extension.

Hillary Krummrich, director of the Chester County Agricultural Development Council, said it was her understanding that the ordinance would be "the first one specifically" in the county for chickens not being raised on farms.

"We tried to create something that is stand-alone," said McCaffrey, former president of Chester County Association of Township Officials, explaining why he believed it would be unique in the county.

Richard W. Orth Jr., 62, said he was the one who alerted the township to the chickens. Orth, a retired principal in the Downingtown Area School District, lives next to the Kearnses, on Monacy Road east of Route 82.

"First of all, the view of a chicken pen right out my door doesn't do anything for the value of my home," said Orth, who has lived there 24 years.

"But the bigger concern when I went to the township was the noise from the chickens, the cackling.

"I don't have a problem with them having a few chickens. They had these for a long time. Then they bought more and more and kept adding chickens.

"I didn't go to the township because they had chickens, but because of the number. If they had checked with the township, none of this would have happened."

Wayne Kearns said that for years, he has raised 15 to 18 hens. He hadn't consulted the township, he said, because his real estate agent had assured him backyard poultry were OK.

One day last week, Natasha Kearns showed a visitor her three surviving hens, a Rhode Island Red and two crossbreeds, all age six.

Growing up in Belarus, in Eastern Europe, she had spent summers with grandparents who raised sheep, rabbits, and chickens, among other animals.

That childhood memory, Natasha said, was what inspired her to buy the first chickens six years ago, as a 4-H project for her children.

The stay-at-home mother and teacher said she has a bachelor's degree in linguistics from a university in Minsk, the capital of Belarus.

Gregory Martin, the Penn State Extension agent for poultry matters statewide, said that for a household, he would recommend a minimum of 20 to 25 chickens.

"It would be good to have more rather than fewer" chickens, Martin said, because of "lapses in production, and mortality."

A replacement hen has to be "the same age as the rest of the flock, so you don't incur any stress to the flock." It's better to have a few extras.

The term "pecking order" comes from how each hen works out its place in the hierarchy of the henhouse, he said. The senior hen enters the coop at the end of day, followed by the next senior, and so on.

A newcomer would not likely be tolerated.

"You can't go out and buy another bird," Martin said. "Most [municipal] councils don't understand that."


Contact Walter F. Naedele

at 610-313-8134 or wnaedele@phillynews.com.

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