City Council rejects chickens

JGFitzgerald -- July 28th, 2009

Harrisonburg City Council votes 3-2 to reject an ordinance allowing chickens in the city on lots of 7,000 square feet. A motion to allow chickens on 2-acre lots ensues. passes 3-2. (ETA: Degner and Byrd voted no on both motions. Frank and Wiens voted for both. Baugh voted against allowing chickens no the smaller lots, then made the motion to allow them on the larger lots.)

66 Responses to “City Council rejects chickens”

  1. JGFitzgerald says:

    The broadcast began, in media res, more than an hour late, and was plagued throughout with sound problems. It closed with a reporter on deadline leaning across the table to ask someone a question. The video froze on Jeff Mellott’s posterior for several seconds. There is a metaphor here about old media and new media but I don’t know what it is.

  2. Josh says:

    How many city lots are 2+ acres?

  3. JGFitzgerald says:

    How many are 2 acres? Precious few, I’d imagine. That’s two football fields, or about seven lots the size of our average subdivision lot. It probably excludes most of the people who pursued this ordinance and hoped to benefit from it.

  4. Deb SF says:

    …and the chickens meet their coop de grace…

  5. Lowell Fulk says:

    43,560 square feet in an acre. Farmers know such things…

  6. Renee says:

    I doubt there are more than a handful of 2+ acre lots in the city. Council found a way to say “no” without looking quite as bad since they said yes to some cases. Wonder how many people that actually wanted chickens have 2+ acre lots. (my guess: none)

  7. Renee says:

    Wonder if neighbors with consecutive smaller lots that add up to 2 acres band together, if chickens would be allowed on their combined lots? That would be interesting.

  8. Dan says:

    I attended the meeting and the most disappointing thing about it was that the people sitting next to me chose to mutter disrespectful things about the people speaking from the podium. My perception of the back-yard chicken people is that they are making an honest effort to take the opposition’s concerns into consideration and it seemed that they didn’t benefit from the same kind of treatment by some (maybe many?) who opposed the ordinance.

  9. Brent Finnegan says:

    People will likely continue to keep chickens within the city limits (yes, people already have them).

    Renee summed it up well: “Council found a way to say “no” without looking quite as bad since they said yes to some cases.”

    It will be up to zoning/law enforcement officials to enforce or ignore this. I’m willing to bet that if you want to have chickens in the city, and your neighbors don’t know/care about it, tonight’s vote won’t matter as much.

  10. Jim Patrick says:

    On March 20 I wrote “Not. Gonna. Happen”
    If I can get past the ‘told-ya’ part that got ignored, there were two reasons: money and . . . dunno what to call an invite-only facebook entry.

    The money and power angle is Hobey Bauhan and the Va Poultry Federation; they donated $70,000 to politicians in the last 5 years. Their members economically contribute a lot to the city, and they (justifiably) have a lot of pull.

    That’s a big disadvantage, but organizers did nobody any favors with the Facebook clique. Then there’s failure to enlist any help (if nothing but advice) from the American Poultry Association or Virginia Poultry Breeders Association; organizations that have experience with this, technical expertise, legal staff, and practical knowlege about what works and what doesn’t.

    There’s nothing about local or Valley (Aug, Rock, Shen & High) poultry breeders and experts being asked to help, and don’t see any sign of experts or ‘big names’ in sustainable/wholesome/natural food movement being asked to show up.

    Did any Charlottesville big-wigs get invited to come say “It worked great at our place” and explain why it’s a good idea? Was the true intention to get poultry allowed in the city? It’s a harsh comment, but VPF couldn’t have done better on purpose.

  11. Nicholas Detweiler-Stoddard says:

    Jim, tonight was a local citizen’s hearing. There were not a bunch of big name outsiders brought in for back up because this was a time for the “common” residents to voice their feedback.

    For supporters, it was also a time to show council that the reported overwhelming majority against chickens couldn’t even bring a majority to the public hearing (perhaps because they knew they had no need since the council’s minds were probably already made up before this token event).

    “Expert testimony” has been solicited at times in the process where seen as helpful (but perhaps not as much as we could have). Unfortunately, I don’t think that that APA or VBPA have the “practical knowledge of what works and what doesn’t” when it comes to getting an ordinance for urban chickens passed.

    Of course, most of the arguments against city hens are highly unlikely to be relinquished no matter how polished, professional or rationally sound the counter-argument.

    That said, HBCP has never claimed to navigate this process perfectly. We will sometimes shoot ourselves in the foot. That’s the beauty of a citizen’s group–we are committed to trying out change from the bottom up and down here we sometimes make mistakes!

  12. Jamie Smith says:

    Mayor Degner was ready to close the meeting when the vice-mayor made the motion to consider the 2 acre option. Obviously Baugh was pandering to the pro chicken group and his two liberal buddies on council. He had already pandered to the anti-chicken group by voting no on the first issue. It was obvious that he blindsided the mayor with his motion. Moves like that one could cause “chemistry” problems on this council going forward.

  13. Deb SF says:

    Jamie- who are Richard Baugh’s 2 liberal buddies on council?

  14. Lowell Fulk says:

    Sounds kind of like a council working as a council should. They listened to the concerns expressed by all interested parties over a generous period of time, seriously contemplated all information presented, and disagreed on the proper path to follow.

    Majority vote, not along party lines. Seemed to work pretty well actually.

    I don’t understand though how a vote on this issue could be construed as conservative or liberal. Seems more like a difference of opinion than party politics.

  15. Jamie Smith says:

    Maybe I should have said his two “sustainability” buddies. You don’t have to be in the same party to be philosophically allied. I think Baugh threw Frank and Wiens a chicken bone to make them feel better but in the process alienated the mayor. The two acre deal won’t allow many eggs to be laid in the ‘burg. The whole issue should never have gone this far.

  16. zen says:

    sustainability = liberal ?


  17. Brent Finnegan says:


    If it should never have gone this far, where should it have stopped?

  18. Jamie Smith says:

    Right after the moron showed up in the chicken suit!

  19. Jamie Smith says:

    Oops, no name calling. I forgot. I should have said, right after the lady or gentleman showed up in the chicken suit.

  20. Brent Finnegan says:

    So if you were on council, you would have said, “You’re a moron. This issue is closed.”

    It’s interesting to read the headlines this morning:

    DNR: Chicken Idea Flies In Council
    WSVA: City Okay’s Bakyard Flocks [sic]
    WHSV: Chickens a No-Go in Harrisonburg (they pulled this story)
    hburgnews: City Council rejects chickens

    Which is more accurate? Or should it have read “Council Says No, Yes to Chickens?”

    I’ll be very interested to know how many 2 acre property owners get chickens. Did council actually say yes? If Burger King offers free meals for every Harrisonburg resident 6’10” and taller, are they really offering free meals?

    If I have the time, I’m going to try to find out how many residential lots within the city are 2 acres or larger.

  21. JGFitzgerald says:

    Perhaps another way of looking at it is, suppose 15 people 6 feet or less come in and ask for free burgers, and BK says it will give them away only to people 6’10” or over. City Council approved some chickens, but probably not for the majority of people who came in asking for the backyard ordinance.

    As to “You’re a moron. The issue is closed.” I imagine everybody who’s held that gavel has been tempted at one time or another. That’s eight people right now that I know of. Some would admit having thought that, some would vociferously deny it, and some would withhold comment, but smile while doing so.

  22. Ralph Grove says:

    I agree that the political process worked very well in this case. Council members listened to opinions over an appropriate period of time, they sought advice, and they made principled decisions. They also gave very thoughtful replies to the messages they received, which I appreciated. Whether you agree with the outcome or not, I don’t think there’s any reason to question the process. I would have preferred a clear yes or no vote to the equivocal nature of the outcome, however.

    The number of people who showed up at the hearing on one side or the other is irrelevant in my opinion. There are many ways to share opinions with council members besides attending a hearing. I trust that their action represents the majority sentiment of the community.

  23. hlestyan says:

    GIS users can connect to the city’s ArcIMS server and query the parcel attributes of the city’s geospatial data.

    I sorted out the lots with a “statecode” attribute of “Resid (Urban)” which at first glance seemed select primarily the parcels that are of interest, ie those classified as “dwelling”, and then filtered out anything greater than 2 acres. 33 total lots that meet this criteria.

    There might be a better attribute for filtering out the residential lots, but it isn’t the zoning classification (for example, R-1 results in a parcel classified as “retail store” being selected).

  24. hlestyan says:

    I should add: If you first filter out any parcel that has “propertytype” listed as “dwelling”, then the number of parcels sized greater than 2.0 acres is reduced to 15.

  25. Brent Finnegan says:

    Thanks, hlestyan. I was lost in HBGIS. 33 (or 15) is a number to start with, anyway. I have a few emails out to real estate folks to see if they can help find accurate data.

  26. Bubby Hussein, Hillbilly Sheikh says:

    These illegal backyard chickens need to be rounded up and sent home. They are taking work from hardworking Rockingham County laying hens. And this is a tough economy for chickens.

    I for one, am pleased to see Mayor Degner just say no to illegal chickens. And I am disturbed to see Vice Mayor Baugh promote the ability to employ illegal chickens by city landbarons. It is past time that Harrisonburg build a chicken fence around the City, and once more assure that the only city chicken is one well cooked.

  27. Barnabas says:

    My dad, who lives in Augusta County has already recieved a couple of chickens that had been residing in Harrisonburg.

  28. Nicholas Detweiler-Stoddard says:

    Most HBCP members have sent their chickens into exile in the county in an effort to be seen as fully law-abiding citizens. Those that have not do so because of larger questions about civil disobedience when current regulations seem asinine (they have raised chickens for years and rarely or never had all the inflated neighborly concerns repeatedly raised by opposition)

  29. Nicholas Detweiler-Stoddard says:

    Apologies, “ill-informed” regulations rather than “asinine.” My emotions have been fairly tense for a few days now.

  30. Nicholas Detweiler-Stoddard says:

    Mayor Degner has been raising ESSENTIAL questions about the role and responsibility of elected civic leadership (questions that very few politicians truly take into consideration! BRAVO!). Likewise, some residents have been raising questions about the role and responsibilities of citizens when they find significant disagreement with current societal realities. Please help us in this discernment.

  31. JGFitzgerald says:

    Actually, I think Plato and Pericles raised a lot of those questions first. There is some danger in thinking politics began when we became engaged in it. It is like reading “The Sound and the Fury” and thinking Faulkner invented the title. You can think it’s a cool phrase, but you won’t really appreciate it without knowing it in the context of Macbeth.

  32. Nicholas Detweiler-Stoddard says:

    Don’t worry, I am not deifying the mayor. I understand they are not his original questions. I am simply grateful the he breaks stereotype and honestly wrestles with them.

  33. JGFitzgerald says:

    Yeah. And the title of the Star Trek episode called “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow” was from Macbeth too. It’s hard to find new material, but sometimes you can find a new audience.

  34. Jamie Smith says:

    And as a blogger on the DNR recounted, “Baugh said, blah, blah, blah, at the end of the day, blah, blah, blah, at the end of the day, blah, blah, I won’t vote for it, but I will after I vote against it, blah, blah, blah, at the end of the day.”

  35. Republitarian says:

    I’d say Kai laid an egg on this one….

  36. Lowell Fulk says:

    By what measure Myron? I’d say Mayor Degner has done well.

  37. The DNR has bloggers?

    Myron, how long were you waiting to say that?

  38. Republitarian says:

    ALL DAY!!!!!!

  39. Renee says:

    If a vote is taken in the forest and there’s no one around who is affected by it, does it make a sound?

    We should do some investigative reporting and phone-interview all 15 households with 2+ acre lots to see if any of them wanted chickens in the first place, then phone-interview all of the people that wanted chickens to find out how big their lots are, then statistically conclude that the last-minute motion satisfied no one, and was just there so the DNR could run the headline “Chicken Idea Flies In Council”.

    Anyway, it just bugs me that laws are put on the books that have virtually no effect, just so the council can say they voted that chickens were ok in some cases.

  40. Renee says:

    I also wonder if council members knew ahead of time how few people would be affected by the 2+ acre lot rule, and had that criteria ready to whip out at any controversial vote to pander to both sides. This discovery may lead to a trend of random laws being passed that only affect those few in the city with large yards.

    “[Fill in law here], unless your yard is larger than 2 acres.”

    “See, we didn’t say no to [x] completely, it is permissible in some special cases.”

  41. I did some asking around yesterday, and found that there are ten properties that are allowed to have chickens under the new rule. I’m told that one of those ten is owned by someone who wants to raise chickens.

  42. JGFitzgerald says:

    The conclusion that the 2-acre provision was passed for the benefit of a DNR headline writer is a stretch. There’s no sign that sort of collusion has ever happened, on any issue, and no evidence it has in this instance.

    As to council members wanting to say they voted for chickens, the 2-acre change would only allow one council member, Baugh, to say that. The other two who voted for the 2-acre provision had already voted for the provision for smaller lot sizes. The “last-minute” provision for chickens on 2-acre lots came up several weeks ago, so perhaps it would be more accurately termed a “last-month” provision.

    If you polled the owners of lots 2 acres and larger, you would find out that one of them, on a 5-acre lot, has chickens, and suggested the 2-acre provision to Baugh. He said so, at two different televised meetings, which would be another way to find out. If he intended it as a surprise, he failed woefully in that regard.

    As to Baugh “pandering” with the 2-acre provision, he is more intelligent than that, and knows that his constituents are as well.

    As to random actions for large lots, the council recently took action to allow townhouses on lots that city staff had said were too small. Variances such as that one, and laws based on lot size, are generally not random, but are often based on governmental compromises between pragmatism and principle. They happen a lot, many if not most of them are more important and more permanent than Tuesday’s action on chickens, and most of them go under the radar, because people who think they are paying attention are actually distracted by things like poultry.

  43. Renee says:

    “The conclusion that the 2-acre provision was passed for the benefit of a DNR headline writer is a stretch.” – I was attempting to be sarcastic/funny with that comment, to make the point that there didn’t seem to be much other reason for the law.

    I’m not so worried about the poultry issue as I am that a law would be passed that affects so few people in the city, it seems strange to use a 2-acre cutoff – what was the rationale for that, that the chickens wouldn’t bother neighbors as much? Is there a clause saying they can’t put the chickens up against the property line?

    I guess if a constituent asked Baugh to make the motion, it does make more sense (thanks for clearing that up, from the discussion above it seemed it was an unexpected move). At least one household got what they wanted.

  44. Jamie Smith says:

    Mr. Fitzgerald, you seem to be a Baugh fan with your constant defense of his intelligence and his motivations. “Indulge me”, he said, and then he spent five minutes saying very little but chin music and cliches. The meeting was ready to be adjourned, many were on their way out of the hall and Mr. Baugh decides to pander to his 5 acre friend and the other two chicken lovers on the council. If Mayor Degner knew the motion was coming he sure did a nice job of acting like he didn’t. Mr. Baugh, at this early stage, seems to be filling the role of your old colleague Dorn Peterson, in pontification only, not in sagacity.

  45. Karl says:

    To say that passage of the 2 acre ordinance was last minute is misleading. Of the two motions voted on Tuesday night, only the two acre version was actually a proposed ordinance in front of council that night.

    Of course council members knew that the two acres didn’t mean much, if you went to the meeting or watched it on City Span you would know that. Hell, if you listened to my newscast you would have heard Baugh say himself that he knew very few people would be affected, but he thought it was crazy that someone with that much acreage couldn’t have chickens. Kai voted against the ordinance because he thought it applied to too few people.

  46. JGFitzgerald says:

    Actually, the mayor said he voted against the 2-acre measure because of the administrative costs. (And the fellow above took 116 words to say that Richard Baugh is long-winded.)

  47. Nicholas Detweiler-Stoddard says:

    There are many reasons Kai voted against, not simply one. Administrative costs (especially considering the very few [read “one”] beneficiaries), fear of getting blamed later on if [when] Avian Flu broke out in the highly at risk commercial flocks surrounding the city, his sense of responsibility as an elected official to faithfully represent the majority who are opposed, and the ability to build political capital for later change by voting no (many in opposition were sufficiently impressed, even minorly endeared when Kai voted no twice! In the same stroke, he knew that pro-hen citizens were not going to turn their backs on him. In the end, it may have been a politically wise move).

  48. Jeremy Aldrich says:

    re: Baugh being “long-winded”

    One of the things I like about Councilman Baugh is his willingness to talk out issues with anyone – anyone – who contacts him. To complain that a city leader is spending too much time on an issue is silly, unless it’s accompanied by a suggestion on what they should have spent their time on instead. This particular issue has set tongues wagging and lots of ink a-spilling, and reaching a conclusion on it should not happen without careful consideration. If anything annoys me about Council meetings, it’s when they DON’T talk about their reasoning or have a discussion on a controversial issue during the meeting before taking a vote.

    re: the whole chicken issue

    I support sustainable living. But raising chickens is not as simple as planting tomatoes. There is a long section of state code dealing with poultry, and I wonder how many of the people who want to have backyard chickens understand the legal obligations involved. I also wonder what the reactions would be if a kill order was issues by the state veterinarian, or even a quarantine order.

  49. Jeremy Aldrich says:

    *”if a kill order were issued”, not “was issues”

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