Chickening out (of the city limits)

Brent Finnegan -- March 20th, 2009

Yesterday, National Geographic featured a snippet about “urban chickens” (via Boing Boing). This piqued my interest, because some folks in Harrisonburg recently announced a fundraising event on Facebook called the Harrisonburg Backyard Chicken Project.

I emailed to ask Beth Schermerhorn, one of the organizers behind the Backyard Chicken Project, what they’re doing.

Our group came together after several of us, who had chickens in our backyards, received letters from the city stating that we had 30 days to remove the chickens. Realizing that there were laws banning chickens in the city, we all contacted each other and realized that this needed to change.

Chapter II, section 23 of the city charter states:

The council is empowered … to regulate or prevent slaughterhouses or other noisome or offensive business within the city; to regulate or prevent the keeping of animals, poultry or other fowl therein; to prevent animals and fowl from running at large in the city, and to subject the same to such taxes, regulations and confiscations as it may deem proper … and generally to define, prohibit, abate, suppress and prevent all things detrimental to the health, morals, safety, comfort, convenience and welfare of the inhabitants of the city.

According to the city, it’s a zoning issue, because poultry are farm animals, and there is no land zoned for agricultural use within the city limits. In other words, it’s not necessarily outlawed, it’s just not allowed.

As to why keeping live poultry on your property is important, Beth says that the birds make great pets, and that ownership increases neighbor-to-neighbor interactions, helps to cut down on gardening pests, and reconnects Harrisonburg to its agricultural roots.

Residents who have chickens in their backyards are lessening their dependence on foreign oil and food transport, thus working towards environmental sustainability. Chickens are legal in many cities across the country: New York City, Chicago, LA, and recently in Charlottesville, VA. Many of the cities who have changed their laws are approximately the size of Harrisonburg and have seen it as an asset to the city and many residents participate … We have been working with the city in finding the proper avenues to take our proposal. They have been really great to work with! As far as the city council goes, I do not think that any of them have said anything regarding our proposal, but we are really optimistic about getting our laws changed!

Beth is encouraging residents to come “find out what Harrisonburg’s laws are on backyard chickens and how [they] plan to change them.” The event is being held March 25 at 7:30 in the Clementine lounge.

The animal control officer at the HPD is unavailable this week for more info. I’ll update this post if/when that info becomes available.

UPDATE: More info from Miriam Dickler, the city’s Public Information Officer:

… the only way that people get violations are via complaints or our proactive zoning. Proactive zoning targets one area at a time, completing the entire city takes three years. It is highly targeted.

In 2008 there were 6 chicken related zoning issues. To date in 2009 there have been 4.

I am not sure whether these were complaint or proactive zoning driven.

Community Development thinks that if a change would be made to allow chickens that the ordinance amendment would have to be made under animal control and not zoning.

UPDATE 2: Mary Hope-Gangwer (with the HPD) confirmed that having a chicken in the city limits is a misdemeanor. Under 10-3-13 of the city code (the section on zoning), “any person found in violation of any provision of this chapter, upon conviction be guilty of a misdemeanor and shall be punished by a fine of not less than ten dollars ($10.00) nor more than one thousand dollars ($1,000.00).”

She said that the chicken owners normally get a 30-day notice from zoning.

13 Responses to “Chickening out (of the city limits)”

  1. Updated the post with more info.

  2. Jim Patrick says:

    Not. Gonna. Happen.

    National AgLaw Center :Stickley wanted to use the game birds to help create a one hundred acre shooting preserve on his farm. . . The Rockingham County Board of Supervisors (“the county board”) notified Stickley that he needed a special use permit . . . the board discovered that Stickley also raised turkeys on his farm for Rocco Enterprises, a commercial poultry company. The county board consequently instructed the county zoning administrator to gather comments from the Poultry Foundation and poultry industry representatives about the matter.
    . . . [who] expressed concern about the possibility that Stickley’s game birds could carry diseases, such as the avian flu, to surrounding poultry flocks. On November 19, 1997, the board unanimously denied Stickley’s request for a special use permit. Stickley filed a Petition for Review and an Amended Petition for Review in the trial court . . .

    . . . Dr. Elizabeth Krushinskie, an expert witness testifying on behalf of the county board, opined that while she had no experience with game birds infecting poultry, diseases could be transmitted from game birds to poultry.
    . . . Although four expert witnesses contradicted Dr. Krushinskie’s opinions, the court concluded that “Dr. Krushinskie’s common-sense appraisal of the ‘significant risk’ to poultry from the release of pen-raised birds is amply sufficient to make that issue fairly debatable. The county board did not act arbitrarily, therefore, in denying Dr. Stickley a special use permit.”

    At that time, Elizabeth Krushinskie was Director of Chicken Veterinary Services Wampler Foods, Inc.

    Just eat your Soylent, it’s ‘good for the economy’. Backyard poultry (or any other commonsense food idea) is screwed as long as our government acts as an extension of powerful industries.

  3. If it’s happened in Charlottesville and NYC, I think it could happen here. Someone on city council, or the zoning board, or a city employee will need to do some research to see what the rules are in other urban areas.

  4. Emmy says:

    This is very interesting. I kind of figured there was a law against it, but I’ve seen a number of houses with chickens roaming around so I wasn’t sure. I think that certain limits to the number and containment of the animals goes without saying in residential neighborhoods, but I love the idea of people being able to have a few chickens. I know people in other states who do this and it just makes sense.

    I also love the term “livestock running at large”. Just makes me giggle.

  5. Chris says:

    RE: More info from Miriam Dickler, the city’s Public Information Officer: “Community Development thinks that if a change would be made to allow chickens that the ordinance amendment would have to be made under animal control and not zoning.”

    Harrisonburg City adopted new animal control laws in 2003 and they did away with references to any specific types of animal other than hybrid canines, which you need a permit for. Prior to that, they did have a number of different “running at large” clauses, such as for chickens, livestock and dogs but now it just says “all animals must be kept under control”. The code goes on to define control but it DOES NOT prohibit ownership of any type of animal. You can actually own a lion or bear if you have the all of the correct Federal permits and if you are not in violation of any local zoning or building codes.

    The poultry industry in the valley discourages “backyard flocks” because of disease transmission. Poultry is notoriously hard to contain when free ranging in a fenced in area. When roosters are kept, they disturb the peace of others in our cookie cutter communities. Poultry in the urban setting may also attract rodents and flies. With that said, some urban communities do allow them, setting strict rules limiting the number, sex, and stipulating the type and height of the enclosure required. Unfortunately many of these flocks are poorly managed. They often starts out as a novelty and it soon becomes a chore, unattended properly as the egg production falls rapidly.

  6. Beth says:

    Just wanted to respond to some of the comments. Firstly, this is backyard chickens, not poultry production for sale. We’ve been talking about allowing 5-6 chickens/ property based on the size of the lot. NO ROOSTERS. We understand the noise thing. We also have set specific regulations on how feed would be stored and part of the reason that we are having a fundraiser is to raise money to produce educational materials so that the neglect, rodent, and other concerns are addressed. I really don’t think that disease is an issue with backyard chickens in small numbers. Most of the disease problems are found in factory chicken production plants. I hope to see everyone at the fundraiser!

  7. Chris Bell says:

    kind of reminds of this guy
    he had to talk to like 8 people before someone could give him a straight answer. At least some people here actually know the law.

  8. Jeff says:

    I grew up in suburban Richmond, and my dad thought it would be fun for us to have a few chickens. We built a nice house, created a run… and had chickens for a couple years. Neighbors thought it was kinda cute. I got bored with the chickens so we got homing pigeons… neighbors found them a little less cute, since homing pigeon fly and are call of nature sociopaths. So we ended up with a large garden. Through it all I learned a little about responsibility, a little about raising animals, and a little about “farming.” Forgive the pun, but a few chickens sounds like “no harm, no (problem with a few) fowl.”

  9. There’s a story about chickens in the city the current issue of Rocktown:

    “Allowing backyard poultry to be kept in the city could pose a disease risk to the commercial poultry industry,” said Hobey Bauhan, president of the Virginia Poultry Federation, which represents the state’s commercial poultry industry.

    Bauhan said that raising backyard flocks without the strict biosecurity precautions taken by commercial poultry farmers could increase the risk of outbreaks of avian influenza and other diseases.

  10. David Miller says:

    While I respect Hobey’s opinion he does not quote any instances of this happening and his industry has a less than spectacular record on their “strick biosecurity precautions”. My family farms turkeys and I have no desire to endanger their livelihood, that being said I want chickens in my backyard. Four to be exact. If I am presented with studies proving that Harrisonburg backyard chickens pose a risk to Rockingham County flocks (since it’s LEGAL to have your own chickens in Rockingham County I won’t include them in my argument ) then I will cease and desist at Council.

  11. Lowell says:

    Modern poultry industry has bred and developed birds that will produce the maximum amount of meat in the shortest amount of time with the least amount of grain required. In doing so these companies have sacrificed the immunity system of the birds being raised for meat in the United States in the interest of short term profitability.

    Is this good policy for our sustainable food supply?

    In a word, no.

  12. Nicholas Stoddard says:

    For those following this thread, please take some time to check out the additional comments at Mayor Degner’s website:

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