Chickens one cluck away

Published 9:35 pm Tuesday, April 18, 2017

A proposed ordinance that would allow backyard chickens in certain areas of Suffolk is one step from approval after the Planning Commission recommended it on Tuesday.

The nearly year-long process will culminate with consideration next month by City Council, which has the final say.

The topic generated a good deal of discussion in Tuesday’s Planning Commission meeting. Finally, a proposed ordinance narrowly passed on a vote of 4-3.

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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.

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

Proponents of the ordinance are pleased that it has finally come to this step but still want to see a less restrictive proposal.

Rebecca Franklin, leader of the Suffolk Backyard Hens group, urged planners to use either a minimum lot size or a zoning district, but not both. Using both would create situations where some people would be able to have chickens, but their next-door neighbors on non-conforming lots would not.

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

Millicent Dove, a proponent of backyard chickens, spoke Tuesday and requested a change in the setback restrictions.

“I think 10 feet is enough,” she said.

Emily Foster was the third speaker in Tuesday’s meeting in favor of backyard chickens.

“I’m in support of this ordinance,” she said. “I think it’s vital for people who like to garden and want to live sustainably and ethically.”

One person, Janet Rock, spoke Tuesday in opposition to the idea of backyard chickens. She worried about cleanliness, disease control and what would happen to the hens when they stop providing their owners with fresh eggs.

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.

Planners discussed the administrative aspects of issuing a permit to keep chickens before the chickens have been acquired, considering the restrictions on their origin.

“It looks like we put a little bit of the chicken before the egg,” commissioner John Rector quipped.

Chairman Howard Benton also wondered how people would prove the origin of a hen they acquired as an adult.

Planning Director David Hainley said those would be things that could be worked out through administrative processes.

Several of the commissioners said they could not support the ordinance.

“They’re still going to keep the same noise, whether you call them backyard chickens or just chickens,” commissioner Anita Hicks said. “All of us don’t like chickens.”

Commissioner Ronnie Rountree added, “There is quite a few of the silent majority out there.”

An effort by commissioner Mills Staylor to add in the Residential-Medium zoning and reduce the minimum lot size from 15,000 to 10,000 won only the support of Arthur Singleton, who seconded the motion.

When that failed, a motion to pass the proposed ordinance as originally presented brought Rector and Jim Vacalis to the supporting side, and it passed 4-3 with Benton, Hicks and Rountree opposed.