After months and months of petitions, debate, and policy analysis, Richmonders can now own chickens in their backyards.
Update #3 — April 8, 2013; 8:51 PM
In the days leading up to the ordinance passed by City Council that makes owning chickens more viable for city residents, Valerie West–who for years has advocated for backyard hen ownership–was cautiously optimistic.
“I’m not going to count my chickens before they hatch,” she said last week ahead of Council’s vote.
She can count her chickens now.
City Council passed a zoning ordinance that completes the efforts of Council, City officials, and many residents who’ve advocated feasible chicken ownership within city limits. Residents can own chickens, provided that they:
- Own no more than four female chickens (no roosters allowed)
- Keep coops in backyards
- Coops must be no closer than 15 feet from neighbor dwellings
- Owners must obtain a $60 annual permit from City Hall
- Maintain coop upkeep (coops can be inspected by officials without announcement)
“This is a breakthrough,” said West, who’s helped coordinate the efforts through local backyard hen advocacy group Chickunz since 2011.
Before then, West, a beekeeper, learned that chickens combat a common predator to bee colonies: hive beetles. She read more about the benefits of owning chickens: the compostability of their feces, how they maintain yards by eating weeds, to say nothing of their eggs.
“I found out more benefits every day,” West said. She also found out that owning them was nearly impossible (see bottommost post).
So she partnered with an old friend, Copeland Casati, and used Chickunz has a way to advocate for chicken ownership and educate people on its many benefits.
In December 2011, she and supporters started attending each City Council meeting to promote amending City ordinances to allow chicken ownership. But a handful of supporters wasn’t enough to inspire councilmembers, who didn’t think enough residents even wanted chickens. West knew better.
She and cohorts began signature drives to show Council that there was a devoted following of chicken owners (some of whom already owned illegal chickens) who were being misrepresented. “We were on a mission to get signatures,” she said
West said that when Chickunz amassed 1,107 handwritten signatures in 2012, Council couldn’t ignore them any longer.
Soon after, City Council policy analyst, Joyce Davis, began a study on backyard chicken ownership. Then the office of the City’s Chief Administrative Officer conducted their own study. A gust of wind then caught the sails of the backyard chicken movement when, in April 2012, the City’s Food Policy Task Force recommended that residents be able to raise chickens in their own backyards.
In addition to egging Council and City officials on, Chickunz has worked to debunk misconceptions about owning chickens.
Some think that owning chickens means one can also own roosters. Not so–it’s illegal to own roosters. Some think chickens themselves will increase noise levels. This is also untrue: most chickens only cluck in the early hours, and at a volume much lower than of a barking dog.
Not only do chickens lay eggs in conditions much safer and more pleasant than factory farms, but they also serve as a natural pesticide, eat lawn weeds, use their feces for fertilizer, and can feed on household table scraps that would otherwise be sent to a landfill.
“A world with more chickens is a world with less pesticides, a world with less petroleum based fertilizer, and that’s a good place to be,” West said. “Chickens are the best assistant we could have.”
Benefits that many Richmonders will now have the opportunity to learn first hand.
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Update #2 — February 22, 2013; 12:03 PM
“April 8th is when we expect people will be legally allowed to own chickens,” said Councilman Charles Samuels (2nd District) by phone this morning.
This comes amid news of a resolution scheduled to be voted on by City Council this Monday regarding amendments to existing City zoning laws, which will afford Richmonders the ability to own chickens in their backyard. But Council won’t be voting in a new ordinance next week.
Council will instead initiate the legal process of implementing that new ordinance with the goal of making it law in the spring, according to Jan Giradi, liaison to Councilman Samuels.
“It’s going to go through eventually,” Girardi said. But she added that the changing the City ordinance regarding chicken ownership is no easy feat. It involves the Department of Planning and Development Review, along with Animal Control, to review and approve any amendments. “It’s just a much more complicated issue than it appeared to be,” she said.
Since late last year, Councilman Samuels has been working with residents and City officials to amend the existing ordinance to make chicken ownership more viable to residents (see bottommost post for background).
But the original proposal Samuels submitted “didn’t have the support of the [Mayor's] administration,” he said. The administration wasn’t against the idea — it just wanted to make sure the law was easy to understand, practical, and enforceable.
So he and the Planning and Development Review have been working in recent weeks on a simply-worded ordinance that the administration could support, that Council could vote on, and that residents would approve.
Essentially, there are two wheels involved in allowing Richmonders to own chickens.
The first is the Animal Control portion: the City needs an ordinance on the books that allows for residents to apply for permits and to own up to four female chickens. On Monday, Council will vote to amend an ordinance that does so, scheduling it to go into effect on April 8th.
On Monday, Council will adopt another resolution (the second wheel) that will essentially declare their intent to amend the City’s zoning restrictions to allow for chicken ownership. On March 11th, Council should pass that new zoning-specific ordinance. It will then head to the Planning and Development Review, which will review the proposed ordinance and hold a public hearing on it on April 1st.
If it’s approved, the zoning ordinance will return to Council for a vote on April 8th. If it passes, each of the two wheels will be synced and aligned, and Richmonders will be able to own chickens.
Samuels said that since Planning and Development Review has already been working on changing the zoning ordinance to allow for chicken ownership, he expects the amendments will be approved.
“I don’t think anyone is going to be fighting against this,” Samuels said. “I think it will pass quickly.”
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Update #1 — January 28, 2013; 6:31 AM
A City Council vote on an ordinance that would foster chicken ownership in the city will be delayed as city officials review and amend its details.
City Council President Charles Samuels (2nd District), said that he’s heard “a lot of feedback from [city] administration” regarding details of the ordinance, previously scheduled to go before Council vote today.
Current language in the proposed ordinance (PDF) would allow residents to own up to four chickens in a fenced area 15 feet from another dwelling,1 provided residents pay a $60 fee and have at least 50,000 square-feet of property.
That land requirement caught the attention of Mark Olinger, Director of the Department of Planning & Development Review. “That’s over an acre of land,” he said. As a result, most properties wouldn’t have been able to satisfy the requirement. He said that “very few–if any–coops” would have been permitted had the ordinance passed.
Officials will propose changes to the ordinance that include a smaller land requirement as well as other nuanced changes, which Olinger said will provide “ample opportunity” for residents to raise chickens.
He said additional revisions beyond the land requirement are minor, but necessary. For instance, the current language in the ordinance doesn’t explicitly say that only female chickens are permitted. Revisions will affirm that distinction, to clearly rule out residents owning roosters.2
“We just wanted to make sure that as this goes forward, that what came out of the CAO office translated into an ordinance that Council could act on,” Olinger said. He added that the some of the faulty language in the ordinance “just got overlooked,” and officials are working to revise it so that it is more practical for residents, and enforceable for the City.
Many who have advocated for an ordinance are disheartened by the last-minute delay. Councilman Samuels sympathized with “how frustrating it must be for those who’ve advocated for the changes to this ordinance to know that it is going to be continued.” He hopes a revised ordinance can be voted on before spring.
When Mark Olinger was asked when a revised ordinance would be given to City Council for its consideration, he wouldn’t guess, but added, “It’s very imminent.”
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- Residents can own chickens now, but coops must be at least 500 feet from another dwelling and residents must have at least 50,000 square-feet in property, restrictions that are difficult for any resident to meet. ↩
- The term “fowl” is used in the ordinance, a generic description that can include roosters. ↩
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Original — April 13, 2012
When the city’s Food Policy Task Force announced last Wednesday that it would formally recommend that residents be allowed to raise chickens in their own backyards, the audience applauded. Copeland Casati, who has been advocating that the city amend the existing ordinance for five years, was elated. “It’s so exciting,” she said about the headway that’s been made. “I’m excited for Richmond’s future.”
Casati created the local group Chickunz to educate Richmond about the benefits of owning and caring for hens. In 2010, she started the Richmond Coop Tour, which other cites—including Charlottesville—have. Casati said that owning hens makes “good economic and environmental sense.” Hens cut down on the presence of nuisance bugs and pests, their fecal waste make for excellent soil fertilizer, and food scraps that would otherwise go in the trash could be provided to her hens (“Anything I couldn’t compost, I could give to the chickens”). All of these are benefits, to say nothing of easy access to fresh eggs. Casati owned chickens in Richmond for three years, before a disgruntled neighbor reported her illegal hens.
To keep chickens under the current city code you must abide by the following restrictions:
“No person shall keep, place or maintain fowl on any parcel of real property in the city which contains less than 50,000 square feet in area.”
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“All fowl shall be kept in securely and suitably fenced areas, and no fenced area or pen for fowl shall be permitted closer than 500 feet to any house or other building used for residential purposes by anyone other than the person maintaining such fowl or such person’s immediate family.”
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There are also several provisions requiring the chickens’ living space be kept clean and free of pests and rodents.
Interestingly, the only restriction placed on owning cattle is that they must not wear a bell.
A family “ripped apart”
The neighbor “never heard them, never saw them, never smelled them,” said Casati. She affirmed that those very concerns are misconceptions that people have about residential hen ownership. She said that ten hens produce less feces than the average Labrador retriever, and while hens do cluck, most clucking takes place in late morning hours (Casati and most others who advocate for backyard hen ownership do not support owning roosters). She said that the time needed to properly care for these animals is “somewhere between a cat and a goldfish.”
Despite the minimal disturbances to neighbors, Casati and many others in Richmond have had their hens confiscated. “To say our family mourned is an understatement,” she said, calling it a “most violating, disappointing, disgusting experience…it still affects us to this day.” She and her family were so upset, that they moved to a neighboring county that allows hen ownership. She said that it’s “not about just taking the hens away, it’s about ripping a family apart.” The city’s current ordinance (see sidebar) restricts hen ownership to those with over 50,000-square-feet of property, a requirement very few city residents can meet. Casati said that the inability of individuals and families to raise and care for hens is untenable. “It’s an incredible violation of a family’s basic food rights.”
”They do so much for so little”
Lisa Dearden worked in sales and marketing for twenty-five years. In 2002, significant health issues “caused a life shift” in how she thought about food and nutrition. She studied sustainable agriculture at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College and learned of the many health and environmental benefits of hen ownership. “Now people are a lot more concerned about where their food comes from.” She said that it was not uncommon for homeowners to care for chickens pre-World War II. The country’s food became increasingly centralized after the proliferation of factory farming. All that appears to be changing.
“Chickens are the center of the local food movement,” said Dearden. She noted and that roughly 500 cities amended their ordinances to allow for hen ownership in 2011.1 Dearden believes that, should Richmond join that list, it would become a “more sustainable place to live.”
To help make that happen, Dearden created ChkinEgg Productions, LLC. to educate and promote hen ownership in the area, along with sustainable agriculture and food growing. She initiated a working relationship with Pat Foreman, author of the book City Chicks: Keeping Micro-flocks of Chickens as Garden Helpers, Compost Makers, Bio-reyclers, and Local Food Producers, and helped screen documentary film Mad City Chickens at the Byrd Theatre last summer.
She also offers classes for would-be hen owners. Among the course topics: laying hens, how to handle chickens, gardening with chickens, and even how to hypnotize chickens (“you have to come to the class to learn that,” she said). While people can complete a full eight-week program to become a certified backyard chicken owner, they can also take individual courses. Dearden will start a new round of classes somewhere centrally located in Richmond beginning sometime in June. She said that if Richmond were to allow residents to own hens, it “could really change our city.”
”People want those animals treated humanely”
Laura Donahue, Virginia director for the Humane Society of the United States, said that an amended city ordinance that would allow for hen ownership “can be huge” for the well-being of chickens. “Over 280 million hens live in battery cages,” said the Virginia director. Other benefits would include a “reduction in environmental costs” as well as a way for people to “gain an appreciation of [chickens’] complex personality.” While acknowledging the many benefits of owning urban hens, Donahue highlighted aspects that concern animal welfare advocates. One is how individuals would procure their chickens.
The Virginia director said that it is not uncommon for hatcheries to kill male chicks by grinding them alive. Donahue also said that hatcheries will send day-old chicks to locations via mail packages. “Most people have no idea” that chicks and chickens can be treated in such ways, said Donahue. “People want those animals treated humanely.” She encourages would-be hen owners to use services such as Pet Finder, local farm sanctuaries such as United Poultry Concerns, and even Craigslist to find hens for adoption.
Despite the relatively easiness of caring for hens, Donahue pointed out that hens are heat and cold sensitive, and are possible prey to raccoons, possums, and even domesticated dogs, and should be fenced for their own protection. The animals also “need to express nesting activities.” As long as these things can be monitored and enforced by Animal Control officials, she said that backyard hen ownership can be a boon for sustainable agriculture and provide better living conditions for chickens.
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photo by Fionnuala Bradley