5th-grader champions chicken ordinance

Photo by Amanda Valentovic
Phoebe Handelman, in her chicken hat, and parents Marc and Kathryn Handelman speak at the South Orange Village Board of Health meeting about an ordinance to allow residents to own pet chickens.

SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — At its Dec. 11 meeting, the South Orange Board of Health unanimously approved an ordinance that amends the village code to authorize residents to own chickens. The amended ordinance, which allows residents in single-family homes to own up to five chickens at a time, begins in March 2018 as part of a pilot program that will last until February 2019. South Orange is joining neighboring Maplewood and many other Essex County towns in allowing residents to have chickens on their property, after a young villager spoke up earlier this year.

Phoebe Handelman, 10, a fifth-grader at South Mountain Elementary School, wrote a letter to the editor that was published in the Village Green in July that advocated for residential chicken ownership.

“I believe that the residents of South Orange should be able to raise up to five chickens on their property, as it is their property,” she wrote. “Chickens lay eggs and can help many people get more protein in their diet. In my opinion, not having chickens hurts more than it helps.”

Phoebe, with the help of her parents, then began to talk to the village trustees, who comprise the Board of Health, and the Health Department about changing the code.

“This moved fairly rapidly through the process of becoming an ordinance, that people in South Orange can now have pet chickens,” Board of Health President Mark Rosner said at the meeting.

According to South Orange Health Officer John Festa, the ordinance allows residents who live in single-family homes to own up to five chickens — as proposed by Phoebe. Chickens will not be permitted in condominiums, apartments and dormitories. Roosters are not included in the ordinance, and residents will not be allowed to have one on their property.

“I thought it was (written by) a 45-year-old attorney,” Village President Sheena Collum joked at the meeting about Phoebe’s letter. “I was amazed to find out that she was in fifth grade and could come up with a fresh idea that will allow us to make changes down the road. It was very well crafted, and in my mind I’ve been calling it ‘Phoebe’s Chicken Ordinance.’”

Kathryn Handelman, Phoebe’s mother, said at the meeting that her daughter had asked if they could have pet chickens after attending a camp that had them. After looking into the local law, the family realized that they would have to change it if they wanted to build a coop in their backyard.

“I made her write a persuasive essay and said, ‘If you can change the law, we can have them. All of the towns around us can have them, so let’s find out why we can’t,’” she said at the meeting.

In her letter, Phoebe argued that chickens are just as friendly as cats and dogs, in addition to providing protein and eggs to owners. She also supplied sources to back up her reasoning as to why South Orange residents should be able to own chickens.

Wearing a hat in the shape of her favorite animal — and with her friends and classmates at the meeting to watch the Board of Health vote on the ordinance — Phoebe thanked the village trustees for listening to her.

“Thank you for taking me seriously,” she said. “We’re going to get four chickens, and I promise to share eggs with my neighbors and people at school.”