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Law changes will make urban farming easier in Pittsburgh city limits

"This isn't about people toying with their hobbies. This is about food. This is serious stuff."

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In her Highland Park yard-turned-small-farm, Jodi Noble-Choder tends to nearly 20 hens and, after the recent arrival of some new hatchlings, a whole family of ducks.

"There are five ducklings, cute as can be," she says.

Noble-Choder says she began chicken farming in 2009 because she was a "Martha Stewart devotee."

"Martha had chickens, so I had to get them," she says. "I had been saving chicken-coop plans, but neither [my husband nor I] had any carpentry skills. We ended up buying a dog house from Lowe's."

Now she is somewhat of a chicken connoisseur, or in her words, an "addict." Her current coop is an Amish-made structure, housing several varieties of chicken, including gold-lace Wyandottes, Easter Eggers, Splash Marans, and Black Australorps. Noble-Choder is also an organizer of the urban-chicken movement: She leads a group called Chicks in the Hood, which facilitates tours of chicken coops in Pittsburgh backyards. Its Facebook page has nearly 1,500 likes.

"It's like an edgy garden tour," Noble-Choder says with a laugh. The tour has more than a dozen stops now, up from just six or seven a few years ago.

But, Noble-Choder knows that what's going on in her own backyard isn't technically legal.

Jody Noble-Choder holds one of her 18 chickens in her Highland Park yard. - PHOTO BY HEATHER MULL
  • Photo by Heather Mull
  • Jody Noble-Choder holds one of her 18 chickens in her Highland Park yard.

"I'm still illegal," she says. "I definitely plan to get legal once the regulations are changed, and our organization is definitely going to encourage people to go out and get legal, once we get into a more sensible regulatory schema."

The days of keeping chickens and bees on the down-low might soon be gone. More lenient amendments to the city's agriculture-zoning laws passed a preliminary vote of Pittsburgh City Council on June 29. And, as of press time, supporters of the bill and city council members anticipated final passage on July 7. The changes will make urban agriculture a resident's right, rather than an exception to the law, making the process for residents to become the keepers of their own backyard farms significantly easier and cheaper.

"I think it removes barriers for those participating in urban agriculture," says Councilor Natalia Rudiak, who supports the legislation. "I've heard anecdotally that there are a lot of residents harboring illegal bees and chickens on their properties, and we need to bring those out of the darkness and into the light."

Also on the line is the expansion of zoning districts for agricultural activities, including highway commercial districts (such as West Liberty Avenue and Banksville Road) and neighborhood industrial and commercial districts (such as Baum Boulevard and Frankstown Avenue). One implication of the law's expansion is that privately owned vacant lots could be used for agriculture.

"I'm excited about having more people do that on private land," says Shelly Danko-Day, the City Planning Department's open-spaces specialist. "We have a lot of vacant land that's not being utilized."

Prior to 2011, there were no hard-and-fast rules on livestock in the city.

According to Andrew Dash, assistant director of strategic planning for the city, the code was interpreted to say that livestock wasn't allowed, except for residents who owned 5 acres or more; in recent history, only one property in Stanton Heights qualified.

He says about nine complaints regarding chickens or bees came through the mayor's 311 line in 2010.

"That led us [to take action] in 2011 to allow for residents to keep poultry or beehives," Dash says.

But since that time, only 13 people have applied for variances to raise bees or poultry; 10 have been approved. (In 2011-2013, city planning still received about nine complaints per year.) According to supporters of the new legislation, the approval process is cumbersome, taking months and hundreds of dollars.

"It was really nerve-racking. You feel like you're going to court," says Jana Thompson, who went through the permit process in 2011 to keep bees and chickens on her Mexican War Streets property. When all was said and done, she said it cost about $300 and took about four months. "I'm one of the few people who went through the hassle." Thompson heads the organization Pittsburgh Pro-Poultry People (P4) and helped advise the city on the proposed changes.

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