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Chickens discussed in committee

Supporters of backyard hens in Suffolk got another boost on Tuesday, as a policy committee agreed to study the matter further.

“We continue to remain cautiously optimistic,” said Rebecca Franklin, a Kilby Shores resident who would like to have hens. She and seven other supporters of backyard hens attended the meeting of the Suffolk Planning Commission’s Committee on Ordinances.

After a staff presentation and discussion that lasted about an hour, the four-person committee decided to revisit the issue at its next meeting.

Backyard hens in Suffolk are allowed only in areas zoned for rural or agricultural use, but supporters believe they should be allowed in neighborhoods with limitations.

About 68 percent of the city’s land area is currently zoned to allow hens. Of the remaining area, only about 7.4 percent is a residential area where hens are not permitted. The rest is non-residential area.

Some of the committee members said they would possibly support expanding only to certain lower-density residential areas.

“The only areas where I would feel comfortable is RL and RLM,” commissioner Johnnie Edwards said, referring to low-density zonings where the minimum lot size is 30,000 and 15,000 square feet, respectively. “No one is talking about chickens on Main Street.”

Commissioner Jim Vacalis said he wants to explore options.

“I would like us to pursue looking at chickens in residential districts,” he said. He added that some restrictions would, of course, be necessary, mentioning mobile home parks that have “extremely small lots.”

“I’ve got my own feelings about it, but I’m only one person out of a city of 90,000,” commissioner Ronnie Rountree said.

He mentioned that any ordinance will need to differentiate between chickens and other fowl, such as ducks.

“Some people like ducks,” he said.

In an informal presentation to the committee, Franklin provided guidance on some of the restrictions likely to be placed on any ordinance expanding the areas where hens may be kept.

“I feel like permitting is important,” she said. “Permitting makes it policeable.”

Around the area, Norfolk, Chesapeake and Portsmouth all allow backyard hens, with restrictions. Some localities that allow them require a permit, while others do not.

But a permit allows the privilege to be revoked if problems arise with a particular person without affecting all chicken owners.

“There will always be that issue,” said Franklin, who works in animal control in another city. “Unfortunately, some people don’t care for their animals.”

She also said the maximum number of hens should be six, since many places will sell chicks only in groups of six.

The next meeting of the Planning Commission and its ordinance committee is Sept. 20.