MULLICA TOWNSHIP - Jack Piper holds Friday night parties in his large backyard on Nesco Road, in an area of the rural township dominated by blueberry fields and old homes on large properties.
He is in a rock band, which plays for friends on his almost one-acre lot, complete with tiki bar, pool, workshop, garage and new chicken coop.
Those parties haven't gotten him in trouble with the township. Instead, Zoning and Code Enforcement Officer Thomas Sandman cited him for having chickens, saying he'd received a complaint. Piper was originally told to get rid of the fowl by July 31 or face fines, he said.
Sandman cited a municipal ordinance that requires two acres of land for the first two pastoral animals, and a half-acre for each additional animal.
Piper, who had has lived in the township since 1969 and had chickens before with no problem, doesn't believe the birds should be considered pastoral animals. If they are, he'd need 7.5 acres for 12 hens and one rooster.
So he attended a recent township committee meeting to ask for help, armed with a petition signed by more than 100 Mullica residents in support of his keeping the brood.
"I don't feel it's right not to have my chickens," he told the committee, adding he built a brand new 16' by 8' coop with an indoor house and enclosed outdoor pen to deter predators. He said the birds stay in the structure and never roam free or enter other properties.
"I wish something could be done. The eggs help. I'm a man just trying to make a living," said Piper, a woodworker who runs the Pinepiper Woodshop from his property, selling handmade birdhouses and other items. He also restores old vehicles.
It's a scene that has played out repeatedly throughout the state, as more residents have gotten interested in raising chickens for eggs.
As a result of citizen campaigns, many far more urbanized New Jersey municipalities, such as Essex County's Millburn, Livingston, Montclair; and Hudson County's Jersey City, allow backyard chicken keeping in coops.
Michael Westendorf, Rutgers University professor and associate Extension Service specialist in animal sciences, said in a 2011 Associated Press story that he has seen increased interest in backyard chicken keeping during the past 10 years.
"I think food security is a big issue," Westendorf said in the AP story. "When you're reliant on trucks coming across the Delaware River to bring you eggs, I for one feel safer having some egg production be local."
Most recently, on July 17 Union Township in Hunterdon County voted unanimously and with no opposition to allow backyard chicken keeping on any size lot. Chickens had been restricted to homesteads of at least three acres.
Now in Union Township, anyone with less than an acre can have six hens; those with one to three acres can have 10; and those with three to five acres can have 15. There's a ban on roosters, and a chicken permit is required on five acres and under.
Piper told the committee he'd be willing to get rid of his rooster, because it is the only one that makes much noise. (Hens will lay unfertilized eggs without a rooster present, and some experts say they lay more because they are not constantly bothered by the rooster.)
The New Jersey Department of Agriculture's "Humane Treatment of Domestic Livestock" regulations only require chicken coops to "provide relief from the elements" and "be of sufficient size to provide adequate space for each bird seeking shelter within to stand, lie down, get up, walk, spread its wings, move its head freely, turn around and rest."
Mypetchicken.com recommends 10 square feet per bird for those who don't get out during the day; Woodlotfarms.com says hens each need about 2 square feet in the coop and about 5 square feet of an outside chicken run.
Mullica Township's administrative code doesn't include chickens in its definition of pastoral animals, which reads, "Any animals typically associated with grazing, including but not limited to: horses, cows, sheep, swine, ponies, mules or goats."
Mayor Jim Brown said the committee is consulting with an attorney about defining chickens as pastoral.
"There is an ordinance," he said. "I think we really need a legal opinion. That's what we're waiting for."
He said he and Councilman Edward Hagaman, who is director of housing and development, have instructed Sandman not to take further action on Piper's brood until the legal question is answered.
Brown said he'd be in favor of clarifying the rules, to allow chickens on less than two acres.
"I would for chickens, yes," he said. "That ordinance has been in place forever."
Brown said the Mullica ordinance was passed to address problems caused by some residents who had horses, cow, and sheep on half-acre lots with no shelters.
"They're the kinds of things we need to protect against," he said. "I think the committee would be open to taking a look at it and redoing something."
Brown said he hoped to have a legal opinion by the next committee meeting, at 7 p.m. Aug. 13 at Township Hall.
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