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Votes

Hen-Pecked Arlington Officials to Consider New Rules for Urban Agriculture

Should neighbors have to consent to backyard chickens?

These hens are illegal, kept in an undisclosed location in north Arlington in violation of current restrictions.

These hens are illegal, kept in an undisclosed location in north Arlington in violation of current restrictions. Photo by Michael Lee Pope.

Majority Opinion

  • Require a 20-foot setback
  • Allow four hens per households
  • Require approval of a majority of adjacent property owners

Minority Report

  • Require a seven-feet setback
  • Allow five hens per household
  • No requirement for approval of adjacent property owners

Arlington County Board members are about to either lay an egg or be considered chicken. Either way, elected officials will be caught in the middle of a scramble about whether where and when the county will allow backyard chickens.

Next week, members of an urban agriculture task force will present recommendations to the Arlington County Board. Elected officials will be confronted with two separate sets of recommendations. The majority opinion calls for a reducing the 100-foot setback with a 20 foot setback, in addition to requiring a majority of neighbors consent to having chickens in their midst. A separate minority opinion will be presented to County Board members that is less restrictive, allowing for a seven-foot setback.

"Hens are very quiet," said Tom Carter with the Arlington Egg Project. "They go to sleep at sundown, and they don't make any sound at night and they have a very soft clucking during the day that's very difficult to hear from 15 or 20 feet away."

The issue has been germinating for years, as county officials have been trying to find a balance between policies that promote urban living with zoning ordinances that allow for sustainable environmental practices. Fifty years ago, when the restrictions were created, Arlington leaders were trying to modernize a county that was emerging from an agricultural past. Now elected officials are confronted with residents who want to retain the urban landscape but return to a time when people had a relationship with the food that appeared on the dinner table.

"We've lost the time when we put up a garden with tomatoes in the summer and squash for the winter with a couple of hens for eggs in the backyard," said Rosemary Ciotti, a member of the Arlington Planning Commission who serves on the task force. "Now there is a movement to look at how far we have been removed we've become from our food sources, and how detrimental it is to our nutrition and our food supply."

ONE OF THE BIGGEST issues that has yet to be resolved is whether or not people who want to keep chickens need to get the permission of their neighbors. Supporters say having the approval of neighbors is crucial to respecting the property rights of homeowners in Arlington. Critics say the restriction would not hold up in court because it may be unconstitutional. Ultimately, County Board members will have the final say.

"We don't traditionally have to have our neighbors’ consent to have a dog or cats," said Ciotti. "So I think it should be thought of in those terms."

Some neighbors say they don't want chickens in their midst. They say they are worried about the noise and the smell, and that they have chosen to live in Arlington because it's so far removed from the rural landscape. Particularly galling is the prospect of having to deal with animal waste.

“The droppings will mix with bare soil to wash into the storm sewers, or if I’m lucky my yard or your yard,” said Jim Pebley during a County Board meeting last year. “I think it’s egregious — I’m sorry egg-regious.”

FOR MEMBERS of the Arlington County Board, the debate will be about what kind of protections are best suited to a 21st century urban county striving to be environmentally friendly. That means striking a balance between the two factions on the task force. While the majority wants larger setbacks and assurances that neighbors approve of the chickens, the minority feels that Arlington residents should be able to have hens without asking adjoining property owners for permission.

“Like all organisms, we defecate a fair bit, and it all has to go somewhere,” said David Luther, biology professor at George Mason University. “Generally for anything except humans, it doesn’t go through water treatment plants. If the quantity is high, it can be a real problem for the local watershed.”

Many advocates of backyard hens have grown weary with waiting for county officials to take action and have brought hens into their yard in violation of existing rules. That means that dozens of hens are already waiting to start laying eggs legally in a county that was once known for its agricultural roots.

"I hope Arlington County follows the hundreds of other communities in the United States that have either never taken away the freedom to keep backyard hen or restored that freedom," said Carter. "During wartime it was elevated from a freedom to a patriotic duty, but we've sort of lost track of that connection over the last 60 years or so but hundreds of communities across the county are figuring out that's actually a good thing."