Backyard hens step forward

Published 10:23 pm Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The full Planning Commission voted Tuesday to move forward with the process of considering backyard hens in Suffolk.

Proponents, who have been to multiple meetings on the subject, praised the move.

“I think it’s great,” Rebecca Franklin said. “It’s a positive step forward.”

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Tuesday’s vote came after several months of meetings by the commission’s committee on ordinances to study the issue.

Currently, residents are allowed to keep chickens in certain zoning districts only — agricultural, rural estate and rural residential — which make up nearly 68 percent of the city’s land area.

Supporters want the zoning districts where chickens are allowed to be expanded. The commission seems to be leaning toward residential districts of low and low-medium density only.

Five of the seven Hampton Roads cities currently allow backyard hens, Franklin noted in remarks during Tuesday’s meeting.

“This is obviously a trend, and it’s not a trend you shouldn’t jump on board with,” she said.

Franklin has kept chickens in the past, when she lived in a zoning district where they were allowed. She now lives in the Kilby Shores neighborhood, where they are not currently permitted.

She was able to share some of her past experience when commissioner John Rector asked about chickens attracting predators. He said he was particularly concerned about foxes, as they can carry rabies.

“These predators naturally occur in every area of the city, whether you see them or not,” said Franklin, who is an animal control officer in another Hampton Roads locality. “Chickens are not going to attract any more predators than what are already there.”

Franklin said she did not have any foxes prey on her hens at her former house, because she kept her coop secure.

“I was properly prepared,” she said.

Other proponents who spoke Tuesday rebuffed other concerns.

“If there is a smell, it’s because somebody is not doing what they are supposed to do,” said Rick Sowards, who noted that even New York City allows backyard hens.

Speaking about some commissioners’ concerns about diseases that can be transferred from chickens to humans, and potential noise, Millicent Dove said these are also concerns with cats and dogs. She referred to barking dogs and the cat-borne parasite that causes toxoplasmosis, a concern for pregnant women. Pregnant women are not supposed to scoop litter boxes for that very reason, she noted.

“I don’t see a reason not to have chickens in Suffolk,” Dove said. “We’re a farming culture.

“It is more than a trend. It is sort of a movement.”

If eventually approved, the ordinance would hold chicken owners to certain standards. Any ordinance drafted likely would prevent owners from having roosters, limit them to a certain number (six seems to be the standard in nearby cities), and place restrictions on things such as the size of the coop, setbacks from the property line and the minimum lot size.

The City Council now will consider the recommendation from the Planning Commission and take the next steps, which will eventually include drafting an ordinance.