Thursday, October 11, 2012

4 Chesapeake Hens at the Planning Commission

Last night was a roller-coaster ride for 4 Chesapeake Hens, the grass-roots community group that is trying to get backyard laying hens legalized in Chesapeake, VA. Our group's ideals and rationale are laid out in a well-researched document, "A Case for Chesapeake Hens." (This document is now available in a revised edition). The current ordinance is that all chickens are livestock and allowed only on land zoned agricultural, with one exception: RE-1 "residential estates" of three acres or more are allowed four hens, no roosters, on the property. Then, and only then, are hens pets.  Here's a recap of what has happened in recent months:

  1. After public appearances on separate occasions by our members, City Council voted to send the "hen issue" to the Planning Commission for a review and a recommendation. 
  2. The Planning Department drafted an ordinance that it publicized would allow hens in the City. Once we actually had the chance to read the ordinance, however, our group came to the conclusion that it was "passively-aggressively" against chickens. If passed, it would have allowed four hens, no roosters, on all single-family residential lots. But it would have made changes that classified *all* hens as livestock, even the ones that under current ordinance are considered pets. Owners would only be allowed to keep four hens, not the six our group has been requesting so that residents could legally purchase chicks. Worst of all, the ordinance would have required owners of these hens, who are already required to keep them in a sturdy pen in the backyard, to privacy-fence their entire back lot in order to keep the hens, an unnecessary and prohibitive expense. 
  3. The Planning Department came out with a recommendation to the Planning Commission to deny even this restrictive ordinance. It used as its justification the City's Staff Report,  a compilation of reports from various City departments that would potentially be affected by the ordinance. Most of the departments were against chickens in the City, but for reasons that we could--and mostly did-- refute. Many statements in the reports were based on fear and conjecture rather than data. Animal Control stated that stray birds could be difficult to round up, for example. This statement totally ignores the fact that chickens are totally night-blind and can easily be rounded up and handled after dark. There was no hard data from other municipalities to support the supposition that stray hens are a concern anywhere else in the country where micro-flocks are allowed. The Health Department's well-researched recommendations seemed most amenable to the idea of pet hens. It contradicted Animal Control's and other departments' concerns about the spread of disease by the hens, for example. Its report acknowledges that hens, like other pets, can potentially spread certain diseases to humans. But it states that "such diseases are uncommon enough that they should not discourage bird-keeping." The Health Department also recommends common-sense precautions, such as supervising children and hand-washing, to minimize the risk of  salmonella transmission. 
  4. We invited an author, scientist, and hen expert, Patricia Foreman, to speak at the Chesapeake Central Library on Tuesday, October 9. Her talk was inspiring and informative. We had invited all the City Council and Planning Commission members to attend. The spouse of one City Council member came, but no officials.
  5. Last night, October 10, was the Planning Commission meeting itself. About twenty supporters, all dressed in red shirts, attended the meeting. Nine of us spoke. All speakers were in favor of the draft law with changes to allow for six hens and the removal of the privacy fence requirement. There were no speakers opposed. A brief account of the meeting by a reporter, Marjon Rostami, is available here, and the entire Planning Commission Meeting was videotaped and can be watched at this link. Our group appears at about 1:35.
  6. After our well-researched, well-documented, and heartfelt presentations, three of the seven Planning Commissioners present at the meeting, namely Adam Perry, Greg Bell and William Small, proposed and voted for an ordinance we could live with: to allow up to six backyard hens on single-family residential lots, to be kept in pens, with no fencing requirement for the lot. Nobody spoke against the proposal: not anyone from the community, not anyone from the Commission, nobody. There was no debate. Nobody asked any of us any questions. The one Commissioner who spoke on the matter, Bell, was positive. He said he'd done his own research on the facts our group had presented in "A Case for Chesapeake Hens," and he could find no documentation to refute any of the facts we'd presented. So for a few heart-stopping seconds, we thought we might get a positive recommendation. 
  7.  Unfortunately, four Councilors voted against the motion for reasons that may never be publicly explained. These same four Councilors voted to deny even the restrictive proposal with the privacy fence, so this will be  the official recommendation from the Commission when the matter goes back to Council.
As far as how members of our group feel about secretive way the Commissioners went about their decision-making and voting on this matter, and what our plans are from here, that's fodder for other posts!

**Update on 10/18/12: Lanetter Lepper recently published the research she presented to the Planning Commission. Her report details the minimal impact of permitting chickens in other cities. Her document may be read on Google Docs.

**Update on 11/15/12: Chicken Activist Saad Ringa has started a YouTube Channel with videos of our activist efforts. Watch the Planning Commission speeches and then the Commissioners' vote. If you're a Chesapeake resident, you'll be ashamed of how the Commissioners acted. And you can't see on camera the Commissioner who actually walked out of the meeting when most of our speakers were presenting, and then walked in to vote against the hens, with no explanation! He could have at least had the courtesy to listen.

Update: On November 20, Chesapeake City Council voted 6-3 to allow hens with certain restriction in residential areas.

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