Thursday, July 26, 2012

Why Were Hens Banned in Chesapeake? The Chicken Activist's Response

In my previous post I asked John King, Chesapeake, VA's, Zoning Administrator, when and why laying hens were originally banned from most residents' back yards. He emailed me the "when," but I had to call him to find out the "why." What he told me by telephone, on July 26, 2012, as I explained in my last post, is this:

He said that chickens have been zoned the way they have since the beginning of zoning in Chesapeake. The reason is that chickens are livestock and that there were concerns about livestock in cities due to "urban density." He asserted that at the time the zoning laws were adopted, Chesapeake was becoming denser in population, and he implied the restriction on chickens as livestock was reasonable. He asked me if I could imagine every Chesapeake resident, even apartment dwellers, owning chickens.

My husband later asked me, "What if every Chesapeake resident and apartment-dweller raised a dog?" 

Or even rabbits, which are also perfectly legal. It seems to us the objection is the misconception that hens belong in an isolated area on acres of land. Period. 

At the time I answered Mr. King that I could indeed see even apartment dwellers owning and managing hens as part of a co-op. 

Perhaps Mr. King has never had a chance to learn about Milwaukee's Growing Power, a non-profit urban farm managed by a MacArthur Genius Award recipient, Will Allen. He is the author of a great book, The Good Food Revolution: Growing Healthy Food, People, and Communities. His 3-acre urban farm in the middle of the city is so intensively managed, he feeds 10,000 people with it. 

And, yes, the farm does not produce just  vegetables. Growing Power's livestock includes worms, fish, poultry, and even goats, as can be seen in this video. The compost from the livestock, especially the worms, is vital to growing vegetables as sustainably and intensively as this farm does.

Perhaps those who, like Mr. King, cannot imagine chickens in urban areas are unaware that they are raised, legally, even in dense urban areas like Chicago and New York City. 

That's right! 

Residents, even apartment dwellers, raise chickens in communal gardens in the Bronx and Brooklyn. A non-profit in New York City, called "Just Food," educates city residents and helps them to set up and maintain these kinds of positive, healthy, communal spaces. This video shows the fantastic results of their efforts.

If our local zoning administrators plan to advise against hens due to urban density, they had better think again. If these positive programs can happen in Milwaukee and New York City, certainly they can happen in Chesapeake. Our city is less dense, I am sure, and has fewer residents than these major metropolitan areas.  

Chesapeake, Virginia, does, indeed have "food deserts" according to the USDA. It seems to us that local zoning should work with City Council to address this problem, and to study how community gardens and urban hens might work as part of the solution to it. People, even low-income ones, even minorities, even apartment-dwellers, have the right to control their own food supply, and reasonable accommodations should be made to those who want to go about this responsibly. The community, this means the rest of us, should help them.


  1. I think we can assume Mr King is guessing, unless he was part of the zoning commission back in the 60s, which is quite unlikely. I'd wager that the city zoning laws were simply copied from another locality and slightly modified without a whole lot of thought.

  2. Actually, Valerie, I don't know how much thought was put into them, but my research shows that Chesapeake put a lot of time into them. An article, "Zone Plan Ends Long Stalemate" from May 28, 1969, by Lloyd Lewis of the Ledger Star newspaper, claims that the 1969 ordinance came after 6.5 years of struggle over the issue. There was "a long series of public hearing and study sessions involving both the council and the planning commission." Up until then, there were ordinances, but there were different ones for South Norfolk and the other five boroughs, with "a smattering of citywide rules plus several development plans for isolated areas." It sounds like zoning was a mess until this compromise was reached.

    The same article says that farming was allowed under the 1969 laws in all zones, and that livestock was allowed, although some special rules were enacted to "keep pigs in their place." It doesn't jibe with Mr. King's assertions at all, as I updated in my previous post.