Saturday, November 17, 2012

When and Why Were Chickens Banned in Chesapeake? An Answer at Last!

4 Chesapeake Hens is a grass-roots organization that is trying to get micro-flocks of laying hens legalized in all residential areas of Chesapeake, VA. Currently the law only allows chickens on land zoned agricultural and on RE-1 "residential estates" of three acres or more. There, up to four hens (no roosters) may be kept in a pen. Up until yesterday, I have been unable to get factual information from the City regarding exactly when and why chickens were banned (see this previous post).

A member of City Council, Debbie Ritter, finally suggested I contact Dolores A. Moore, our City Clerk, with a request for more research on this topic. Yesterday I received an email that contained copies of minutes from both the Planning Commission and from the City Council where chickens were mentioned. These minutes date back to April 12, 1966, which is even before zoning was legally adopted in Chesapeake. Even then, there is a suggestion that the City preserve tracts of "two or three acres of land" for residents who desire to keep "ponies and chickens."

However, chickens and other poultry were allowed in the residential areas of Chesapeake up until June 17, 1975, when Council voted to allow "livestock, poultry, and other animals not commonly kept as pets" only in the A-1, RE-1, and (now defunct) C-1 Districts. The ordinance went into effect thirty days after its adoption. But even then the minutes make clear that it was the intention of the City to continue to allow residents who already had livestock to continue to do so under a "non-conforming use" unless the residents had stopped for one year, at which point they would not be allowed to begin again.

The only record of any objection to the new law was made by a Mr. Joseph T. Hall of 1385 Elbow Road at the Planning Commission meeting on May 19, 1975, which recommended the adoption of this ordinance. Mr. Hall owned a property zoned R-15s in the South Norfolk borough of Chesapeake, and he had tenants there who kept chickens. When informed that the ordinance "would prohibit the future keeping of animals not commonly classed as household pets on the property," Hall objected to the ordinance.

This ordinance must have generated some confusion or potential confusion about what constituted livestock, because on February 15, 2005, City Council Member Ritter made a motion to approve TA-Z-04-09, an ordinance "to clarify that rabbits, fish, and other animals can be kept as pets under certain circumstances." Council Members Burkhimer, Hayes, Krasnoff, de Triquet, Edge, Newman, Parker, Ritter, and Willis unanimously voted for the measure. Up to ten rabbits were allowed as pets under the ordinance, but domestic fowl were still prohibited.

These minutes answer the questions of when hens were prohibited, but not the question of why. Was the problem increased urban density, as Zoning Administrator John King once told me? Was it due to the mythical problems that chickens presumably cause? Or was there any evidence back in 1975 for the types of potential problems outlined in the Staff Report that 4 Chesapeake Hens has thoroughly rebutted?

To answer that question, I searched through old microfilms of newspapers from June of 1975. A few hours' search turned up an article from the Ledger-Star, dated Thursday, June 19, 1975.  I will quote from this article, "New Law Prohibits Farm Animals in City," below:

"The new regulation is based on a request by the council in January and generated from a claim for the city to pay the value of ducks killed in a residential zone.

"The claim was based on state law requiring cities and counties to reimburse residents when their livestock is fatally wounded by wild dogs.

"In the past several months, as more and more residents have asked for reimbursement from the city, the council has grown increasingly skeptical of their requests.

"When a Martin Avenue man asked for $93 to compensate for 19 ducks killed by stray dogs, Councilman J. Bennie Jennings Jr. noted the man lived in a district zoned for single-family homes on small lots. The Martin Avenue man received $53.30 for the loss of his ducks but the council voted to refer the question of proper zoning for livestock and poultry breeding to the Planning Commission. The city's planners recommended that farm animals be limited to three zoning districts. 

"Planning Department Director Milton Perry told the council the new ordinance would not apply to bonafide farms in areas subsequently zoned for residential use. 

"Also, the law would not affect persons in resmdential (sic) zones who currently maintain limited numbers of farm animals for their own use. Such situations would be classified as non-conforming uses and so long as such residents did not discontinue keeping farm animals for as much as two years they could keep their poultry and livestock."

With subsequent changes that have been made in state and local laws, the potential for residents with poultry to run the City's coffers dry with spurious livestock claims has been prevented, as explained in 4 Chesapeake Hens' "Further Information" document, pp. 9-11. And it is clear that the original intent of the law was to limit "poultry breeding," not the keeping of a few chickens for household use. Therefore there is no reason that the current Council cannot undo the unnecessary restrictions that have been imposed upon Chesapeake's residents over the years as an unintended consequence of this law. Flocks of up to six laying hens, kept in pens, should be allowed in all single-family residences, for all the reasons explained on this website and elsewhere.

If you  agree with us, be sure to arrive at the City Council meeting this Tuesday, November 20, at 6:30 PM at City Hall on Cedar Rd. Come dressed in red and sit with us. If you desire to speak, you must sign up to speak BEFORE the meeting begins, however. Remarks are limited to five minutes and may be cut to three depending on the number of people speaking. Let City Council know you support TA-Z-12-07 with changes to allow the keeping of up to six hens and the removal of the privacy fencing requirement.

**Update: On November 20, 2012, Councilman Robert Ike made a motion to allow up to six hens, in a pen, on residential properties on single-family lots. The motion carried, 6-3.

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