Hens finally have proposal

Published 9:53 pm Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Suffolk Planning Commission voted on Tuesday to move forward a proposed ordinance that would expand to more areas of Suffolk the ability to keep backyard hens.

The movement has been under way for nine months and is just now arriving at a crucial juncture. The Planning Commission will discuss a proposed ordinance during its April 18 meeting.

Currently, chickens are permitted only in agricultural or rural zoning districts. But the proposed ordinance would allow them to be kept in the RL and RLM residential districts, with restrictions.

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The restrictions include no roosters, no more than six hens and a 15,000-square-foot minimum lot size.

The chicken coop also must have a minimum size of 10 square feet per bird, with a maximum size of 100 square feet, and must meet the same setback requirements as the principal structure on the lot.

Finally having a proposed ordinance is a big step for proponents of backyard hens, but they still have some heartburn with the proposals.

Rebecca Franklin spoke during Tuesday’s ordinance committee meeting after being asked for input by chairman Arthur Singleton.

She said Norfolk and Portsmouth allow residents on lots as small as 5,000 square feet to keep hens. She also objected to using a minimum lot size as well as a zoning district, because there are non-conforming lots that would cause confusion.

Another requirement in the ordinance is that chickens not be slaughtered outside, which Franklin said is unnecessary.

“We are raising chickens for eggs, not for meat,” Franklin said.

Members of the committee on ordinances had a lot of discussion about the zoning and minimum lot size. Commissioners Johnnie Edwards III and Ronnie Rountree wanted to eliminate the smaller and denser lots.

“I really do not like RM,” Edwards said.

Added Rountree: “With the RM, I just feel that would be a little small.”

Edwards also fretted about the type of community that would be allowed to have backyard hens, noting that some newer communities with younger residents are disallowing hens through their homeowners’ associations.

“I’m hearing the trend talk, but what they’re doing is trending backwards,” he said. “It’s going into all the older communities who, 20 or 30 years ago, said they didn’t want chickens.”

Planning Director David Hainley pointed out that there are magazines dedicated to the practice of keeping backyard hens.

“I think it’s a trend moving forward,” he said.

Commissioner James Vacalis made a motion to move the ordinance forward with the RM zoning removed, in an effort to avoid a stalemate vote. The four committee members voted for it.

The ordinance also would require hen keepers to be able to verify they obtained their chickens from a U.S. Department of Agriculture National Poultry Improvement Plan member hatchery and that they have completed the Virginia Livestock Premises registration.

The full Planning Commission can make changes to the ordinance and approve or deny it in April 18. City Council then will receive the same opportunity at a future meeting.