LOWER TOWNSHIP — When Claire Nagel heard about a national movement toward locally grown foods, she planted a big garden and got some chickens.
The problem: Nagel, 79, of Shore Drive in the Town Bank section of Lower Township, does not live on a farm.
Now those six Rhode Island Reds — a type of chicken — have gotten her into trouble with at least one neighbor and a violation notice from the local code enforcement office.
“The whole thing was about doing things locally and having some local sources of food. I was interested in getting some organic eggs for less than $4-something a dozen,” Nagel said.
Code Enforcement Officer Walt Fiore said he received a complaint and cited Nagel under a local ordinance that requires lots be at least one acre in size to house farm animals. Nagel has a lot of slightly more than 10,000 square feet, about one-quarter acre, overlooking the Delaware Bay. Fiore said Nagel has until Aug. 29 to get rid of the chickens.
“We’re looking for compliance. She’s real close to the neighbors so they have to see them and smell them,” Fiore said.
Nagel said her chickens don’t smell and they make less noise than the crows and sea gulls that fly over the neighborhood. She said one night they were noisy because they were spooked by a swinging door. She said they settle down at about 8 p.m. and are quiet all night.
Nagel has appealed to the governing body to change the ordinance and allow chickens or ducks on 10,000-square-foot lots, which happens to be the law in neighboring Middle Township.
“My proposal is to support and encourage the rural and agricultural character of the community,” Nagel said.
Township Manager Mike Voll visited Nagel’s house and said he was impressed. The six chickens have an outdoor pen and can hop through a window into the detached garage for shelter. Nagel plays country music for them and feeds them grass and produce from her garden. She cleans the coop regularly.
“It’s a very clean environment with no noise and no odor. They haven’t laid any eggs yet,” Voll said.
Nagel said she talked to the township about the chickens before purchasing them, but does not remember with whom she spoke. She said she was told residents are allowed one pet chicken per person. With five people living on her lot, including several renters, she figured she could legally get five chickens.
“I got six. I pushed the envelope a bit,” Nagel said.
Nagel is now proposing allowing as many as six chickens (or ducks) on lots of 10,000 to 35,000 square feet, with as many 12 animals on larger parcels. The animals could not be bred and no roosters would be permitted. They could also not be sold or used to generate income. The animals would have to be contained with 3 square feet inside and 5 square feet outside for each animal.
Nagel presented her proposal to Township Council and is now seeking support, in the form of signatures, from residents in Town Bank.
“I thought about a petition but it seemed too threatening somehow. I’m more into persuasion. I’m getting signatures of support,” Nagel said.
Nagel’s friend Deborah Holzknecht, a local resident who built the coop and has helped raise the chickens, said Middle Township’s law seems to work.
“If Middle can have backyard chickens, why not Lower? I went to the library and read up on it, how much space they need and how to build nest boxes. They have way more space than the books say,” Holzknecht said.
Nagel said she buys organic chicken food at a store in Philadelphia that also sells chicken coops, so it seems like even big cities have some backyard chicken enthusiasts.
The clock is ticking on the order to remove the chickens, the signature campaign and the appeal to council. Nagel and Holzknecht, meanwhile, are still waiting for that first egg. They got the baby chicks in April and it normally takes about six months.
“We hope they start this month or in September. They should be close,” Holzknecht said.
Nagel said the chickens are now part of her routine.
“I’m up at 6 (a.m.) getting their food and cutting greens for them. When they see me they start clucking. If I don’t get out soon enough they start clucking.”
The clucking must have bothered at least one neighbor, mostly summer residents in this neighborhood, but Nagel did not know of any problems.
“The first I heard there was a problem was when Mr. Fiore knocked on my door,” Nagel said.
The Lower Township Planning Board will discuss Nagel’s proposal Thursday night.
Contact Richard Degener: