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.
"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.
Danko-Day and others tasked with overhauling the city's current laws knew the number of applicants didn't add up.
"What happened was because of the cost and rigorous process, a lot of people said, ‘To heck with it. I'm going to save my time and just talk to my neighbors myself,'" says Stephen Repasky, president of Burgh Bees, an organization which also collaborated on the new law. The nonprofit's mission is to promote beekeeping in Allegheny County.
"[The new changes are] going to bring a lot of beekeepers out from underground, so to speak," says Repasky, who adds that he could easily think of 25 "underground" beekeepers within city limits.
Under the new regulations, the cost and process will change greatly — a 10-12 week process will be reduced to one day, and a $340 fee will be reduced to a one-time payment of $70.
"It might be a couple of papers and a site plan that needs to be drawn, but we'll have instructions for that," Danko-Day says. The planning commission will "come out and inspect once your chicken coop or goat pen is up. They'll make sure it's what you drew in your site plan."
Residents with 2,000 square feet — including any structures — will be able to have two beehives, along with either five chickens, five ducks or two miniature goats. For 10,000-square-foot lots, two regular-sized goats are permitted with chickens or ducks and bees. All goats must be dehorned and the males neutered; goats must be in pairs. Regardless of lot size, the law requires secure enclosures for animals, and the Department of Permits, Licenses and Inspections, as well as the Bureau of Animal Control, will be charged with enforcing restrictions.
The animals' quarters were of particular concern to Councilor Darlene Harris, who added language to the bill last week.
"I didn't think it had enough about where the animals would reside," Harris said, comparing her concern to legislation she championed in December regarding the safety of dogs. "I wanted to make sure that they were [in] covered, well-ventilated, dry, predator-resistant and properly maintained [enclosures]."
Another councilor with concerns is City Council President Bruce Kraus, who represents a district with varying types of neighborhoods — from the roomier Hilltop to the cramped South Side.
"I don't think my neighbors would be real happy if I put two goats outside," Kraus said during the June 23 hearing. His concern was that while his property in South Side meets the square-footage requirement, his house is included in that measurement. "I would like to talk about lot size as it includes actual structures," he said to the city-planning representatives who presented the bill.
Kraus has not returned calls seeking additional comment on his reservations with the new legislation.
But, there really hasn't been much opposition, says Danko-Day.
"It's such a change from 2011, when it was a controversy, and people were coming and testifying," she says."We had a public meeting this year with 130 people, and we didn't hear anybody say anything that was negative. We're only a couple of generations removed from these activities in the first place. I think people are realizing [that]."
Councilor Harris shared that sentiment.
"Growing up, I had ducks, chickens. I've had animals around me all my life," said Harris who was raised in Spring Hill, where she says it used to be farmland. "It's like being in the country in the city. As long as people are taking care of the animals they have, I don't have a problem with it."
For others, the issue is about food sovereignty, access and public health.
"We're trying to have a code that lines up our history with our future," says Dawn Plummer, director of the Pittsburgh Food Policy Council of Penn State, which collaborated with city planning on the changes. "We absolutely think hunger is a critical issue in the city and region. Having access to growing food and keeping small livestock connects you to the source of your food, which is critically important and speaks to regional challenges of high obesity and chronic diseases."
All of the bill's supporters acknowledge that public awareness is going to be key. Grow Pittsburgh, a nonprofit that educates youth and runs small farms in neighborhoods considered to be food deserts, will hold a backyard goat-keeping workshop in late August.
One reason for the workshop, says Marisa Manheim, of Grow Pittsburgh, is that a lot of people want goats for their milk, but there's a lot to learn. For instance, a person either needs to send his or her goat for a "conjugal visit" or order sperm and artificially inseminate it themselves. "In order to actually have milk, you're kind of going through a lot of extra effort," she says. "You have to have a pregnant goat that carries to term, and then there are babies to deal with. It's not the same as getting a dog." But there are advantages, she assures; for instance, goat manure, which "is full of nitrogen."
Thompson, the Mexican War Streets resident, is happy the changes are getting a strong reception.
"I can't believe this might actually be over soon," she says.
And, she minces no words about her views.
"This isn't just people toying with goofy little hobbies, this is about food," Thompson explains. "This is serious stuff."