Arlington Urban Agriculture Task Force Chickens Out

Arlington Urban Agriculture Task Force Chickens Out

Panel members fail to reach consensus; submit three separate reports.

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 Report

  • require setback of at least 20 feet from property line
  • require pre-approval from a majority of adjacent property owners
  • allow up to four hens per household
  • create a new online permitting process with inspections
  • provide information on best practices for nutrition, healthcare, pest control and community relations
  • use social media for continuing education and best practices.
  • identify, fund and outline parameters for enforcement
  • encourage creation of a Master Hen Keepers Association
  • roosters are prohibited

Liberal Minority Report

  • require seven-foot setback from property line
  • create new registration process to keep hens or goats
  • allow no more than five hens
  • require that hens are kept in a securely fenced area with a coop and a pen
  • require a minimum coop space of four square feet per bird
  • require a minimum of 50 square feet run required per five hens
  • require coops to be no taller than eight feet in height.
  • allow miniature, pygmy or dwarf goats
  • all male goats must be neutered
  • require goat sheds be at least 10 square feet and secured from predators.
  • roosters are prohibited

Conservative Minority Report

  • keep existing regulations
  • conduct a study to determine demand among homeowners
  • investigate claims of scarcity
  • define food security challenges

The Urban Agriculture Task Force laid an egg.

Instead of coming up with a recommendation for the Arlington County Board about what to do on the issue of backyard chickens, members of the task force failed to reach consensus. So instead of issuing a report, the task force issued three reports — a majority opinion and two separate minority reports.

"Trying to come to unanimity was like herding chickens," cracked John Vihstadt, chairman of the task force. "It wasn't in the cards. People have strong feelings."

The majority report calls for a 20-foot setback as opposed to the current restriction of a 100-foot setback. It also calls for a majority of neighbors to consent to having the chickens in the neighborhood. One of the minority reports says: no chickens no way. The other minority report is more liberal, requiring a seven-foot setback — even adding the possibility of backyard goats. Some members of the task force believe a 20-foot setback will limit the availability to wealthy people with large yards.

"If the purpose is truly to make food more available to everybody, particularly the most vulnerable," said Planning Commissioner Rosemary Ciotti, "then you have just excluded all of them."

THE URBAN AGRICULTURE task force was created in May 2012 and asked to make recommendations to "support, expand and integrate Arlington's existing urban agriculture efforts." Earlier this month, members of the task force issued nine recommendations on everything from transforming an old dairy farm into a learning center to expanding the availability of community gardens. The issue of backyard chickens has been on the Arlington government's agenda since County Board Chairman Walter Tejada launched the initiative in January 2012.

“We are not reinventing the wheel here,” said Tejada. “There are places that already have successful urban agriculture initiatives.”

Since that time, interest in the issue has been steadily growing. Currently, Arlington residents must have a 100-foot setback to have hens. That's almost impossible in Arlington, which has become much more urban than when the regulations were created. Opponents say they are concerned about the public health risks posed to Arlington residents — specifically chicken waste.

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

ONE OF THE MOST controversial aspects of the majority report is the requirement that a majority of adjacent property owners consent. A majority of the members on the committee felt that this provision was needed to ensure peace and tranquilly throughout the county.

"This is something that threatens to pit neighbor against neighbor," said Vihstadt.

Critics say the provision may be unconstitutional and unnecessary.

"We looked at best practices across the country," said Ciotti. "And most liberal places, they've had no neighbor consent needed, just like a dog or a cat."

"Dogs and cats are part of the urban fabric of the county everywhere," responded Vihstadt. "Whereas hens, it's a pretty new thing."