The Chicken or the Egg?

Brent Finnegan -- May 26th, 2009

Two months ago, we posted about the efforts of some Harrisonburg residents to get the city to change its policy on keeping small flocks of live chickens within the city limits. Tonight, the issue of backyard chickens is on the the City Council meeting agenda again, after undergoing review by the Planning Commission.

From the article in today’s DNR:

… the Harrisonburg Planning Commission’s recommendation [is] that animal-control regulations – not zoning laws or a new city ordinance – be used to police hens kept within the city.

The regulations would only take effect if council first backs a request by a group of Harrisonburg residents who want to keep egg-laying chickens on their property.

Animal-control regulations, some commissioners said at their most recent meeting, would make it easier for council to reverse any decision to permit chickens, should that become necessary.

41 Responses to “The Chicken or the Egg?”

  1. Emo Boy says:

    As a Harrisonburg resident I vote for no chickens. One reason it is not necessary. Second the animal control officer Jetta Earhart has enough to do, just ask her. And lastly the article says owners need to be trained in the care of chicken. Unless you have a chicken owner test, people without a clue will have them, then the city will have to hire more help to police chicken owners. Just let people support local farmer and buy local eggs.

    Kai, if you read this, please stop this before it can get out of control and cost the city (and me) tax money.

  2. Emmy says:

    I know quite a few people in other states who own chickens. It works very well. I think most people who want chickens will take the time to learn how to care for them before jumping into it.

    But as for it being necessary…well you could argue that dogs and cats aren’t necessary. Not to mention that there are a LOT of people who have proven that they have no business owning those animals, which is why Jetta is so busy.

    Why not have a chicken permit or something? That could offset the cost of any problems they may cause and if you prove to be a bad chicken owner they can revoke your permit.

  3. Renee says:

    The only thing I worry about with chickens in the city is 1) rooster noise early in the morning, and 2) possible danger to children (bites or disease).

    But overall, I think chickens in the city, if cared for properly, can be a beneficial thing for some families. I agree with Emmy about requiring permits and good chicken care and enclosures.

    On another note, my grandmother had a pet chicken as a child in Puerto Rico that used to follow her to school :)

  4. Renee says:

    Maybe I meant pecking attacks instead of bites? (You can tell my chicken knowledge is limited.)

  5. JGFitzgerald says:

    I know there is a pun here about pecking orders. I know there is.

  6. JGFitzgerald says:

    Odd that the DNR continues to print the same nut graf about the devastation wrought by the last avian flu outbreak without presenting the slightest evidence that it had anything to do with backyard fowl. Aren’t all the chicken farms in the county, where birds run free? Is the implication that avian flu will make its way from a backyard on Broad Street to a bird farm in Broadway?

  7. JNafziger says:

    I agree, JGFitz–that graf is in the story every time, pretending to have something to do with anything. I think it’s more likely that avian flu outbreaks have something to do with thousands of hybrid birds, pumped up with hormones and lord knows what else and bred to get big fast and not live too long lest their legs not be able to support them, confined to close quarters.

    Our small flock in Weyers Cave (allowed by an archaic “general agriculture” zoning) hasn’t caused much damage, economic or otherwise unless you count what they do to your garden if they get loose. These are chickens and a couple roosters my kids know by name and manage to feed every day without getting pecked–let alone bitten (now that would be something!). How this plague of city chickens is going to infect poultry houses is beyond me.

    Like the bumper stickers on our cars say, where chickens are outlawed, only outlaws will have chickens.

    I can see why city council (any of whom are welcome to come see our setup) would ban roosters, but there aren’t good reasons to ban small flocks of hens, even on quarter-acre lots.

  8. JNafziger says:

    I also like the term “egg-laying chickens.” Would that be as opposed to “egg-laying roosters”? “Chickens that give birth to live young”? “Chickens that decline to lay eggs”?

    Of course, after several years chickens don’t lay much, but I doubt that checking whether the chickens in fact lay eggs is going to be written into the ordinance.

  9. Jamie Smith says:

    Stacy Turner’s explanation last night of who has charge of the chickens ranked right up there with Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First.”
    Obviously city staff had to spend a lot of time getting ready for last night’s meeting. I suspect they have more important things to do on a daily basis.
    Ted Byrd is right; we don’t need chickens in the city! Avian flu isn’t the main reason. The main reason is that we are in the 21st century! Chickens belong on farms or in other rural settings.
    The city has a lot of problems to solve and this isn’t among them. I thought our new council members were elected to address growth, debt, taxes, streets and roads, etc. I don’t remember chickens being a campaign issue.
    Perhaps the “Friendly City” will soon be known as “Chicken City!”

  10. JGFitzgerald says:

    I now have pictures of outlaw chicken farmers robbing convenience stores at beak-point.

  11. JNafziger says:

    That would be outlaw EGG-LAYING chicken farmers. You don’t want to be there if someone comes in with a loaded chicken–it could… lay… at any time.

    Of course, crimes such that that only occurred in the 18th century. When people kept chickens in cities. Now, chickens are consigned to the county, where they are content to scratch the ground and lay eggs. The people out there are so backward they don’t even realize the chickens are animals; city folk have much finer sensibilities, I guess.

    I suspect that the city staff and council are more than capable of considering a chicken ordinance at the same time they worry about other issues.

  12. Karl says:

    How much waste will one of these flocks produce? The path of least resistance is often the path most travelled and I worry that much of the waste will not be properly disposed of. The city has spent much time and effort on cleaning up local waterways. I would hate to see phosphorus levels jump in those waterways because of bad chicken owners. Someone mentioned classes on how to tend to these mini flocks. That’s great, but at one time we all took classes on how to drive motor vehicles and well…

  13. Nicholas Detweiler-Stoddard says:

    “Obviously city staff had to spend a lot of time getting ready for last night’s meeting.”

    As the group originally proposing a pro-chicken ordinance change, the Harrisonburg Backyard Chicken project understands that city staff do not need every community issue dumped solely on their plates for resolution. With this in mind, HBCP has done its best to do as much leg work as possible to make the drafting of an ordinance easier for the city. By gathering sample ordinances, registration forms, research, etc. from other chicken permitting cities we hope to make our request less of a burden to city staff.

    Please keep in mind that elected officials’ job is to serve the community in discerning and crafting proper changes that improve community functioning. There are already urban backyard chickens in Harrisonburg, thus elected officials must put forth effort to officially outline responsible and equitable guidelines for such keeping. This is why HBCP has asked the city council, as the city’s official voice, to take action regarding more thoughtful chicken guidelines.

    City staff have gone ahead and put in time because they do understand that this is already a community reality and needs official discernment because of the many issues and strong sentiments surrounding urban hens.

  14. JGFitzgerald says:

    Very roughly, it would take about one chicken for every household in the city to produce one-tenth the volume of waste of the existing dog population (assuming pet-owning stats in the ‘Burg match the nation and a 30-pound dog weighs ten times as much as a three-pound chicken). Add in the likely cats and the amount of poultry waste becomes negligible. (Using a barnyard epithet for negligible or insignificant would be too easy.)

  15. Nicholas Detweiler-Stoddard says:

    “How much waste will one of these flocks produce?”

    Karl, it’s true, excrement is a reality when raising any animal. When considering the amount of “waste” produced by a flock of backyard chickens, I have heard it said that 3-4 hens produce no more waste than your typical medium sized dog or cat. Additionally, the droppings of chickens are safe and of high value for use on gardens, in compost piles, and as lawn fertilizer (unlike cat and dog droppings!)

    Chicken manure, in the amount produced by a handful of hens in the backyard, decomposes much faster than that of mammals (again, like cats and dogs) because bird droppings are of higher water content since they do not urinate. On rainy days like today, droppings from my five birds will dissolve into the lawn in just a few days. If it is dry out, I just follow behind my moveable coop with a quick rake up and throw the manure on the compost! No mess, extremely low odor (especially compared with dogs!!).

    If the citizen groups have successfully educated the public about doodie free dog care, then certainly HBCP and other groups can successfully do the same regarding environmentally and aesthetically acceptable chicken care.

    Lastly, I do not fear an increased phosphorus load into Black’s Run/Shenandoah/Chesapeake because of backyard flocks for two reasons. First, these are small groups of birds we’re asking for (2-6) producing an easily manageable “byproduct” stream. Second, those who keep chickens are not going to need or want to heavily fertilize their lawns (the chickens do that at environmentally safe level)–thus reducing a gigantic culprit in the nutrient run-off choking our watersheds.

  16. Nicholas Detweiler-Stoddard says:

    “[W]e don’t need chickens in the city! Avian flu isn’t the main reason. The main reason is that we are in the 21st century! Chickens belong on farms or in other rural settings.”

    Precisely because this is the 21st century, we will have to rethink the precarious food systems set up through the end of the 20th century. Articles are again popping up about “survivalists” who are preparing for the worst with generators, food and water stashes. Why not simply relearn how to provide some safe, sustainable food for your families on the land that you live on? American yards are relatively huge and American farmland is increasingly gobbled by sprawl, so why not utilize relatively unused lawnscape to provide security, health, beauty and hobbies for your family and neighbors?

    Chickens are part of the movement to realize food and environmental security even within the urban context. Chickens can be integral gardening partners, consuming insects, kitchen scraps and grass in exchange for a fresh, local protein source (eggs). There was a time in our not so distant past that many families (urban and rural) knew how to take part in their food systems. An crucial element was often a few chickens and their eggs.

    It’s true, we live in the 21st century. Gone are the days of smelly, dusty family coops, crammed with hens and guarded by ill-tempered roosters. Today’s urban chicken owners have new understandings of small moveable coops that potentially reduce the occurrence of these older memories. Also gone are the days of small and medium scale family flocks. Today’s chickens are grown in cramped quarters in the tens of thousands–vast numbers that are necessary for the mutation of human avian flu. Today’s urban owners understand the critical need to quickly enact greater levels of sustainable living and eating.

    Just the other day, a rural friend highlighted the issue of chickens as “livestock.” In short, he is keeping some refugee city chickens and is amazed at how tame and pet-like these colorful ladies are. Livestock? I think not. Companion animals and garden partners. For sure.

  17. Jamie Smith says:

    Boy, this thread is really becoming educational. A little 18th century history, multiplying 10X3 and properly defining “chicken.”
    The Vietnamese have had chickens for 10,000 years. Maybe council should send an emissary there to get the real skinny.
    With all the problems the city, county, Commonwealth and nation have, it is incomprehensible that so much time and effort is being spent on this issue. I guess “simple minds are easily occupied by simple matters.”
    J.Nafziger: from your obvious support of this issue I wonder if you were the person in the chicken suit at city council a few meetings back?

  18. City Council has no purview of county, state, or national matters.

    I know folks in the city and county who have chickens, and most of them also have vegetable gardens. For these people (and for me) supporting the farmer’s market, gardening, and trying to eat healthier, local food is not a fad, and it’s not for fun. It’s a lifestyle choice educated by documentaries like King Corn, and books like The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Or, for some, it’s also about educating their children about where our food comes from.

    Have you ever considered that backyard chickens just might be one very small piece of a solution to the so-called global food crisis? It’s a mistake to oversimplify the issue and say it’s just about chickens. In some ways, getting back to the basics by growing your own food and gathering your own eggs is the most conservative thing one can do.

  19. David Miller says:

    As a supporter I still like the idea. I do worry about my neighbor’s ability to responsibly care for chickens. If I were trying to sell or rent my house right now I’d be voting against this.

  20. JNafziger says:

    Jamie: Nope, wasn’t me. I wasn’t at the meeting, and I don’t own a chicken suit.

  21. WitchDoctor says:

    I for one am happy that our city leaders are staying abreast of this issue and thank the folks from HBCP for giving them a leg up on it. While the idea of having chickens next door may stick in the gullet of some Harrisonburgers, I think there are many who are not so feelings are not so tender. I think it is wise for the city council to hear all sides of this issue and not just wing it.

  22. My grandfather raised all manner of chickens in his backyard and started a commercial hatchery in the 1920’s to service a booming business for backyard bird ranchers. He was the chicken judge at the County Fair every year. The business folded during the Great Depression as people had no money to buy fertile eggs to incubate. His catalog contained hundreds of varieties, but today most bird ranchers raise only a few. Backyard ranchers could diversify the range of birds and strengthen the breed.

  23. citydweller says:

    i have no problem with people wanting organic eggs, but it is easy enough to go buy them at a store or local farmers market. i have no interest in watching my property value go down because my neighbor decided it would be neat to have chickens and then neglects to properly care for them. i don’t see how you think a chicken coop next door would not hurt property value. if you want chickens, move to the country. as for the argument that there are already people who have chickens in the city, so we may as well come up with reasonable guidelines for everyone to follow…that makes about as much sense as saying that since people are using cocaine we should just go ahead and make legal, reasonable use guidelines for everyone to follow.

  24. Chris says:

    One of the big differences with chickens is when they get out (and they will) they cause damage. You can’t call them back home like a dog or cat. We have had several “outlaw chickens” in our neighborhood and you would see them perched on top of vehicles, up in trees, even on the neighbors 2nd story balcony. They scratch paint, pick at anything that attracts their attention and they are devastating on plants in the garden. They come and go. We see them sometimes and then they will disappear for a while, to another neighborhood I suppose.

  25. David Miller says:

    Chris, another reason why this proposition must include very specific regulation. One of which would be cropping of wings. If this proposition is eventually framed into policy, it will require extensive city maintenance. If successful I will have chickens, and worry about my neighbors doing so too.

  26. Any cage that a chicken can escape from, a dog, fox, weasel, or coyote can get into. Then the fun begins. A few years ago a slacker buddy of mine built a half-baked coop for his chickens and when the neighbor’s dog developed a taste for chickens – he shot it. Thereafter ensued a feud that extended across generations and long after the elderly dog-owner neighbor had died. There will have to be standards for coop construction or these backyard chicken ranchers will be down in general district court arguing over reparations and other stupid stuff.

  27. seth says:

    reality is a b****

  28. Karl says:


    Thanks for the education and for laying it out in terms even I can understand.

  29. Jamie Smith says:

    citydweller: Methinks we are in the henhouse on this issue! The only way to put this crazy idea to be is to show up at the public hearing and cackle louder than these birds!

    Brent Finnegan: Point taken on state and national matters. However a little more cooperation between city and county would save taxpayers a lot of money (consolidation, anyone) and, the city has plenty of major problems to address. Also, don’t forget it won’t be long until we can begin serious arguments about what to do with the golf course!!

  30. Deb SF says:

    Count me in the no-chickens camp. I’m usually pretty progressive on this type of stuff, but it seems like this is a big-cost/small-benefit decision, with most of the possibly large costs very predictable, and whatever positive benefits exist going to a narrow proportion of city residents. Eco-friendly agriculture doesn’t mean that everyone needs to produce their own food.

    Too many people don’t take care of their cats and dogs in the city. Is the ASPCA ready to take chickens when they get dumped on their doorstep?

  31. Nicholas Stoddard says:

    There are certainly many strong feelings regarding chickens in the city. There have been many concerns raised and benefits posited by persons on various sides of the issue. The Harrisonburg Backyard Chicken Project would like to continue to hear the voice of the broader community on this matter. So, please join your fellow citizens next Tuesday, June 2 from 7-8 pm at the Massanutten Regional Library to hear and voice ideas, hopes and concerns at a public information and talk-back forum.

    Thanks to all for your thoughts so far!

  32. Nicholas Stoddard says:

    As I consider the potential costs associated with allowing chickens, I am increasingly doubtful that enforcement costs will actually increase.

    I don’t foresee a huge surge in backyard flocks simply because ordinances are changed to permit chickens. You are correct, Deb, urban homesteading is not the approach of the majority (as much as I wish it would be). Many who wanted chickens raised responsibly already had flocks and their cost to the city came only by way of the postage for the eviction letters necessitated by the lack of provision in zoning. Those owners who truly are a burden to the city animal control resources (roosters, large flocks, at-large birds) were already so before we asked for an allowance.

    It is highly unlikely that the ordinance changes we are asking for are going to cause a jump in the types of flocks that cost the city in animal control enforcement. Simply put, the type of chicken keeping we are asking for is not the kind that requires city resources beyond the work of getting the ordinance changed and having a file of registered owners.

  33. seth says:

    this is where i kind of saw a disconnect at the council meeting. on one hand it seems to be said that “it is highly unlikely that the ordinance changes…are going to cause a jump in the types of flocks that cost the city in animal control enforcement” (ie there won’t be that many chicken owners and therefore associated costs will remain low), but on the other hand it seems like it has already been decided that we need to approach this by changing ordinances as opposed to granting special use permits to the small number of folks who’d like to have chickens (as i recall, there was some brief discussion of this in the council meeting).

    point being,
    it seems like we realize that while there may be a relatively small number of people wanting to keep chickens at this juncture, we’re obviously anticipating growth or we wouldn’t be talking about changing ordinances.

    i still have yet to see what i believe is an honest accounting of the actual costs. simply stating that there won’t be that many people with chickens and that all that needs to be done is change the ordinance and establish a file of registered owners won’t cut it when people want real answers.

  34. citydweller says:

    nicholas: since you seem to think that no one else (other than those that already have chickens illegally) in the city will want chickens if the ordinance is changed then can i have your assurance (as well as the others in the backyard chicken group) that if the time comes for me to sell my house and i can’t get the price i should be able to get because my neighbors decided to get chickens when the ordinance changed that you will purchase my house for what it should be worth? my point is…how can you be so certain that a large increase in city homeowners won’t decide to get chickens if it becomes within city ordinance to do so?

  35. Deb SF says:

    Snark aside–there have been so many conversations over the last few years about what kind of city Harrisonburg wants to be. When I was on the planning commission and board of HDR a few years ago, during the application to be a Main Street community, during the controversy over getting historical district designation, that question kept getting asked. What kind of downtown do we want to see? What kind of city do we want to be? Safe, clean, those are easy. A city that folds into itself all the educational opportunities available- HHS, BRCC, EMU, JMU -without letting the colleges eat the town. A city that adapts to the changing demographics efficiently and effectively. That recognizes that growth should benefit the city first, developers second. A city that has a diverse portfolio that doesn’t depend on just a few economic sectors. A city that looks forward, but values it’s past. Diverse, growing, and vibrant even during this deep recession.

    For me, the chicken question is another aspect of this argument. Debating chickens in the city seems like going backwards, taking attention away from progress we’ve made and the real needs and real problems for an issue that will benefit few and potentially generate real costs. Don’t we have better things to do? To spend city staff time on, spend city resources on? Benefit yourself AND your neighbors, your community- buy eggs at the Tues/Sat farmers market, help a farmer keep the family farm, spay your cat, clean up after you dog (and vice-versa), volunteer at the SPCA, yada yada yada. There are many real ways to encourage the responsible production of food- ways to feed yourself that actually help not only the region ecologically but people in your community (Myron and Megan Rhodes and all the rest of the producers at the H’burg farmers market come to mind).

  36. Lowell says:

    I acknowledge that I really don’t have a dog, er chicken, in this fight, but I think Deb has made a good and well reasoned presentation here. In my mind there certainly are bigger issues to fall out among ourselves over… Or perhaps to solve together?

    But that’s just me…

  37. BANDIT says:

    So…..if someone wants to have other live stock in their back yard (city limits)….aah, what are the boundaries???

  38. Nicholas Detweiler-Stoddard says:

    It somewhat of a bummer that this has to take up so much time and energy. All we really wanted by asking for an ordinance change was to be allowed to continue quietly doing what we had already been quietly doing!

    Brent’s comment hits it on the head, “[B]ackyard chickens just might be one very small piece of a solution to the so-called global food crisis[.] It’s a mistake to oversimplify the issue and say it’s just about chickens. In some ways, getting back to the basics by growing your own food and gathering your own eggs is the most conservative thing one can do.”

    We are just looking for as many ways to live sustainably as possible. This is just one little piece of that.

  39. Jamie Smith says:

    Deb SF, you said it so well. That’s the point I was trying to get across three weeks ago when this discussion started!

  40. Josh says:

    Some good links I recently came across:

    Backyard Coops Make Chicks Chic : NPR

    YouTube – Chicken Coop Tour

  41. Emmy says:

    Here is my friend’s coop. I can tell you that I wouldn’t mind living next to a house with this type of coop. Not only that it’s a lot less ugly than some of the dog pens I’ve seen.

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