Despite a blitz of positive public comments - most of them organized by a local Facebook page - Niagara Falls city lawmakers soundly rejected a proposed ordinance that would have allowed residents to keep laying chickens within city limit.
Councilman Kenny Tompkins, who sponsored the legislation, was the only member to vote in favor during Wednesday's council meeting. Council members William Kennedy, John Spanbauer, Andrew Touma and council Chairman Chris Voccio all opposed the ordinance, which was identical to one enacted in Buffalo more than 10 years ago.
Spanbauer said, from the council dais, that if chickens could be counted in the ongoing 2020 U.S. Census, he might have supported the plan.
"When I first saw the ordinance, I wasn't for or against it. I wanted to do my research," Spanbauer said. "On doing my research, I believe asking your neighbors (for permission to keep chickens) as the ordinance requires, that could lead to animosity. And I don't think we have a handle on the ordinances we (currently) have in the city. We don't keep our house in order."
Touma said the new ordinance would raise "quality of life issues."
"We're all for live animals and we care for them," Touma said. "But this is a quality of life issue. (Chickens) attract other animals to the city. It's a safety issue for children."
The council members' reactions flew in the face of a large number of emails read during the public speakers' portion of the council agenda. Because of the current novel coronavirus pandemic, council meetings are closed to the public and comments for the good of the community or on agenda items must be submitted by email.
One writer told the council: "Some chickens make great pets. You can teach them to play kickball."
Amy Lewis, the former executive director of the SPCA of Niagara, urged the lawmakers to enact the ordinance.
"When kept in small flocks, without roosters, chickens are quieter than dogs," Lewis, who said she has kept chickens in the past, wrote.
She also noted that chickens help control tick infestations, reducing the chance of insect borne illnesses.
Some commenters said following Buffalo's lead in allowing for urban chicken habitats could make home ownership in the Falls more attractive. Deanna Chambers called the Buffalo ordinance "strong and successful."
"You know our city is a food desert, meaning many inner city residents can't get fresh food," Chambers wrote. "Everybody should be able to have fresh eggs."
The push to allow poultry to be kept within the city limits was spearheaded by members of the Facebook group called “Cataract City Chickens.” On their page, group members say they're “interested in advocating for bringing fresh eggs to the city’s food desert."
After converting Tompkins to their cause, the veteran council member said he reached out to the Falls police department’s animal control officer for his perspective.
Bower suggested that Tompkins look at Buffalo’s ordinance governing the keeping of chickens. The ordinance before the council was a "word for word copy" of Buffalo's law.
The ordinance would have required that all contiguous neighbors give their approval to having chickens next to their properties. It also would have set up inspection requirements for coops and their maintenance, along with charging a yearly fee.
Kennedy said he wasn't sure the city was equipped to police urban hens.
"There are so many moving parts to this," Kennedy said. "We don't do a good job on licensing for dogs or dealing with stray cats."
Voccio also cited the burden the ordinance would place on city inspectors.
"Having chickens in the city is a splendid idea and something we should consider when our code enforcement staffing is such that we can enforce current codes," Voccio said.
While Spanbauer, Voccio and Kennedy all expressed a willingness to revisit the issue, none of them suggested that would happen anytime soon.
"To me, it was worth bringing forward," Tompkins said.
After the council meeting, on the Cataract City Chickens Facebook page, supporters posted video of the vote on the ordinance and one member summed it up with, "Welp, we did what we could ...."