Chickens, Queens, and Covenants

May 7th, 2014

The Times has a somewhat whimsical, but property-related, article about progressive Foodies in New York City trying to raise their own chickens. And to stop them, the chic Forest Hills homeowners association is relying on a century-old restrictive covenant that (they allege) prohibits keeping chickens in the home.

Ms. Saye bought a $2,500 coop and had fencing installed to protect the chickens from predators. But a month ago, she learned of a different type of threat to her chickens: the stringent restrictions that homeowners in her neighborhood are supposed to abide by.

Ms. Saye lives in Forest Hills Gardens, a private neighborhood nestled in one of the more pristine sections of New York City. It is renowned for its stately country garden style, multimillion-dollar Tudor and Georgian homes, and for its strict regulations, which forbid the keeping of backyard chickens.

Ms. Saye has been ordered by the Forest Hills Gardens Corporation, which manages the neighborhood, to get rid of the chickens. In a recent letter, corporation officials cited the nuisances section of a century-old homeowners’ covenant.

Covenants to prohibit nuisances will run with the land, and will last, as I tell my students, to infinity and beyond.

The rules were set down in 1913, during the infancy of this 140-acre, leafy swath that is one of America’s oldest planned communities and was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., whose father was Frederick Law Olmsted, the famous landscape architect who helped design Central Park.

Ms. Saye called the nuisances section — which forbids “any brewery, distillery, malt house, slaughter house, brass foundry, tin, nail or other iron foundry, lime kiln or sugar bakery, tallow candlery, crematory, hospital, asylum” — antiquated.

She said she felt the rules should be modernized to fit the more progressive approach to raising poultry today, especially the heritage breeds that she owns.

She noted that the nuisances section also does not allow a “cattle yard, hog pen, fowl yard or house, cesspool, privy vault; nor any cattle, hogs or other live stock or live poultry.”

“These are 101-year-old rules,” she said, adding that she decided to order the chickens after seeing Martha Stewart talk about them on television. She even bought the birds from the website that Ms. Stewart recommended,

Unsurprisingly, the Homeowners association, which is likely the beneficiary of the covenants, will hold tight to them.

Mitchell Cohen, the president of the Forest Hills Gardens Corporation, said the regulations detailed in the homeowners’ covenant and restrictions are meant “to protect the whole community” and an “amazing document that has held the test of time.”

The covenant “is what has kept the Forest Hills Gardens the oasis it is today,” he said. “I’m sorry Mrs. Saye is upset by our letter, but to keep the Forest Hills Gardens the community it is, everyone must look beyond themselves and follow the rules we all agreed to follow.” The corporation has not said what, if any, action it might take to force Ms. Saye to evict her chickens. For now, she said, her chickens are staying.

One of the first homeowners covenant cases began right in New York in Neoponsit, Long Island. Neponsit Property Owners’ Assoc., Inc. v. Emigrant Indus. Savings Bank.

Here is the layout of the Neponsit neighborhood.