Eileen Benthal and her daughter, Johanna, at the small stand outside their Northville home in August 2021, where they sell "Jo's Eggcellent Eggs" produced by their backyard hens. File photo: Denise Civiletti

Alarmed backyard chicken keepers are squawking about a proposed code that would ban roosters and regulate the keeping of domesticated fowl on residential properties in Riverhead Town.

The draft code was discussed by the Town Board at last week’s work session, brought to the table by Council Member Tim Hubbard, who said the town has been receiving “numerous” complaints about roosters crowing around town.

MORE COVERAGE: Riverhead considers banning roosters and regulating chicken coops on residential properties

If adopted, the code, in addition to banning roosters, would prohibit the sale or offering for sale of eggs produced by hens kept in backyard hen houses and coops. It would regulate the design, placement and maintenance of coops, henhouses and pens and it limits the number of fowl that may be kept to 10 per coop. The language of the code is not clear about whether more than one coop may be maintained on one property.

The regulations would affect “residential property” only — defined by the new code as properties in various Zoning Use Districts whose primary or principal use is a single-family or two-family dwelling.

The draft code does not exempt residential properties over a certain size or acreage. However, property owners or tenants engaged in agricultural production and farm operations, commercial activity defined by town code, would be exempt from the regulations.

Read/download the draft code below.

Like thousands of people across the country who found themselves homebound during the COVID pandemic, and facing difficulty purchasing basic pantry staples, Eileen and Steve Benthal of Northville began keeping chickens in the backyard of their Sound Shore Road home. In addition to providing a safe source of food, the chickens provided a healthy activity for their medically fragile daughter, Johanna, a young adult with a rare and debilitating genetic disease that has required dozens of brain surgeries throughout her life.

Johanna Benthal gathers eggs from one of the family’s backyard chicken coops at their home in Northville in August 2021. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Backyard poultry was already on the rise in the U.S., but there was a massive uptick in demand for chicks after the pandemic struck, according to the American Poultry Association, which represents breeders and poultry-show exhibitors.

Eileen Benthal was fuming when she read about the proposed new rules. The proposed rules are discriminatory and an example of government overreach, Benthal said in an interview Thursday.

“People keep chickens because they are trying to feed their families,” Benthal said. “Keeping chickens and sharing or selling eggs is community-building — which we need now more than ever,” she said.

Johanna Benthal with the family’s rooster, Goldie, in 2022. Courtesy photo: David Benthal

Roosters are necessary, Benthal said. “They protect the flock. And people have a right to keep them, to raise chickens from fertilized eggs and maintain their flock size,” she said.

“Riverhead is a rural community. We value our rural heritage here. Where does the overreach end? If our rooster needs regulations and oversight, then so do the leaf blowers, barking dogs, house parties and vineyard events,” Benthal said.

‘It’s a pretty rural place.’

Molly Ginna, who lives on a two-acre residential parcel on Penny’s Road, not far from the Benthals’ home, said one of the reasons she moved to Riverhead from East Hampton was because she wanted to have a little farm.

“We were fortunate enough to find a horse property here in 2015. It’s a pretty rural place,” Ginna said. “On my two acres, I have one horse, two donkeys and about 20 chickens. I have four coops,” she said. “I have this one rooster that actually showed up here as a stray, who was very aggressive. I have another rooster who’s very mild-mannered and I adopted him from a friend of mine because he was being beaten up by another rooster,” Ginna said.

“The rest are hens that I’ve adopted. They’re older. They’re not really laying. They’re not productive. They get to be retired here. I’m not going to put them in a soup pot because they’re not laying eggs,” she said. “I feel very kindly toward them. They all have names.”

‘Dumped’ roosters find a home in Aquebogue.

Virginia Scudder of Aquebogue is the founder of North Fork Country Kids, an animal rescue organization. While her group does not concentrate on rescuing birds, it does what it can to help — and abandoned roosters are a persistent problem, she said.

“It’s very difficult to re-home them,” Scudder said. “A lot are dumped at Indian Island park, but we’ve found them in a lot of places,” she said.

“I don’t have a flock because I want to have a flock. I have a flock because they need shelter and care,” she said. “When I take them, I take them for life. I have a coop my father built for me many years ago. The most I’ve had at any one time was eight roosters.”

If the Town of Riverhead adopts a ban on roosters, Scudder worries that the problem of abandoned roosters will get even worse.

Scudder started an online petition at Change.org, asking the Town Board to back off the idea of banning roosters and implementing the regulations contained in the draft code discussed last week.

“We should focus on educating our community about responsible pet ownership and creating communications that support this,” the petition reads.

“Let’s work together to ensure our town remains a place where all creatures can live harmoniously.”

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Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor and attorney. Her work has been recognized with numerous journalism awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She was also honored in 2020 with a NY State Senate Woman of Distinction Award for her trailblazing work in local online news. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.