A Fox in the Henhouse Law

Mare Dionara’s son, Finny, enjoyed the smell of carrots pulled from their backyard garden, where they hope to have chickens.
Mare Dionara’s son, Finny, enjoyed the smell of carrots pulled from their backyard garden, where they hope to have chickens. Carrie Ann Salvi

    Mare Dianora said on Tuesday morning that she wanted chickens to be “available to everybody” in the Village of Sag Harbor, which is why she helped write an amendment to the Sag Harbor Village Code that took effect on July 12 of last year allowing the keeping of chickens as a “special exception accessory use.”
    Before the amendment, village code specified that “the keeping of any horses, farm animals, or fowl shall not be permitted as accessory uses.”
    With Ms. Dianora’s help that changed, but after working to see that her fellow village residents could keep chickens in their yards, she found out earlier this month that she herself may still be prohibited from doing so.
    At a planning board meeting on May 22, Ms. Dianora was prepared to submit her site plan and special exception application to keep chickens in a 74-by-39-foot coop. To her surprise, prior to her turn at the podium, she was pulled aside by Denise Schoen, a village attorney, who told her that her property was too small to meet the code requirements.
    The code amendment passed last year provides that people can keep 6 chickens per 20,000 square feet of lot area, but never more than 18 on any one parcel.
    Additional requirements written into the code to protect neighbors included the prohibition of roosters and the commercial sale of poultry, as well as setbacks and regulations for outdoor pens. They are limited to 100 square feet, must be in a backyard only, and must be at least 20 feet from rear and side lot lines. Fencing is required, too. The zoning board cannot grant any variances, except to the minimum lot area requirement.
    With a 13,000-square-foot lot, Ms. Dianora cannot build the chicken coop she wants without first obtaining a variance from the zoning board.
    Ms. Dianora said on Tuesday that she thought to herself, “I wrote the code. Why would I exclude myself?”
    She had modeled the code after that of the village of North Haven, she said, “and we have much smaller lot sizes.” Requiring a minimum of 20,000 square feet, or about a half-acre, would exclude most residents of the village, she said.
    She wants her 3-year-old son, Finny, to know where his food comes from, she said Tuesday, as he ran around the back yard holding and kissing a stuffed chicken. “He has them named already.” She plans to use them for eggs only, adding that she likes to “know our food is safe, too.”
    She and her husband, Claes Brondal, a jazz musician, own their house on Grand Street, which once belonged to her grandparents. “Maybe they had chickens,” she said. “Many people in the village grew up with chickens, rabbits, and ducks.”
    She and her husband enjoy growing their own food, she said, while showing her son that the carrots were ready to be pulled from their garden. There are peas, carrots, strawberries, asparagus, and garlic planted, too, to eat themselves and share with neighbors and the Sag Harbor food pantry. The garden is also part of her son’s education, she said. Ms. Dianora is a teacher who provides art instruction to the terminally ill.
    Ms. Dianora spoke with Robby Stein, a village trustee, last week, and he agreed, she said, that it was never the intention of the trustees to exclude anyone who had less than a half-acre, which is how the current code is being interpreted by the building inspector.
    “I think there will be a resolution at the next village board meeting,” she said. “We’re excited to get them and to get started.”
    “I want chickens,” Finny said.