Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Dog vs. Hens Again?

I started a group, 4 Chesapeake Hens, that successfully lobbied City Council to allow up to six hens on all single-family residential lots with certain restrictions. But Council passed the ordinance with a sunset clause. This means that Council must vote by December 20, 2013, to continue the law, or our rights to keep the hens will lapse. On Tuesday, November 19, Council held a work session regarding the hen ordinance. They met with the Zoning Administrator, the Head of the Department of Development and Permits, and the Chief of Police. The meeting is summarized in a previous post. Here are my comments emailed to City Council regarding Councilman Rick West's raising of the issue of the state depredation law, which states that animal control officers must kill dogs caught in the act of killing chickens.

Dear City Council Members:

I  write to express the dismay I felt when the subject of the state depredation law was raised at Tuesday's City Council work session. Nothing about this law should seem new or surprising. The law was raised in the Staff Report provided to City Council prior to its vote on November 20. The concern was also rebutted by our group, 4 Chesapeake Hens, in a report entitled, "Further Information Regarding Chesapeake's Staff Report,"  provided prior to the vote. This report may be viewed at

Please be reminded that loose dogs are illegal in residential areas for a reason. The owners are responsible for keeping them leashed or on the owners' property, just as it is the chicken owners' responsibility to keep their birds on their property and in a secure enclosure.

Please note that this state law has not prevented cities around Virginia, such as Richmond, Norfolk, Hampton, Portsmouth, and Fredericksburg, from legalizing backyard hens. Nor has there been, to our knowledge, a single instance of a dog being summarily killed for chicken predation in a residential area anywhere in Virginia or anywhere in the United States where there are similar laws. Perhaps this is due to the fact that the discharge of firearms is illegal in residential areas, perhaps due to the use of fences and leash laws, or perhaps due to common sense on the part of animal control officers and people in general.

It disturbs me that Councilman West mentioned this point after a conversation with a councilman from a neighboring community. A grass-roots group, "4 Virginia Beach Hens," has found the state depredation law a major stumbling block in getting the ordinances changed in its community. The Virginia Beach group feels that raising the depredation law is a form of emotionalism and an excuse. It has asked its own Council why this law is such a concern in Virginia Beach when it has not stopped changes in ordinances elsewhere.

Furthermore, the Virginia Beach and Norfolk groups have  brought to our attention that a Virginia Beach City Council Member, James L. Wood, has allegedly been contacting City Council members in Norfolk and possibly other communities, raising the hue and cry about this depredation law. We are not sure of his reasons for doing this, but I can assure you that, if this is true, residents of these communities resent Councilman Wood's efforts to interfere with our rights and to meddle in our local affairs. Councilman Wood neither lives nor votes nor pays taxes in Chesapeake; we residents do! Let's hope that, if his alleged efforts have reached Chesapeake, our Council Members see his machinations in this light.

Finally, the depredation law has become a concern because it is out of date. It was developed to protect farmers in agricultural areas. But it has not kept up with the modern sustainability movement, where gardening and backyard hens have become highly welcome and desirable in residential areas. It is my understanding that cities have a process where they can ask the State Legislature to modernize outdated ordinances. We also realize that citizens have the power to contact our delegates directly and ask for changes in the state law. It is our understanding that "4 Virginia Beach Hens" plans to take this concern to the state level in January or February, and our group has pledged to help. If the depredation law as it currently stands is an issue, which we doubt, we invite Chesapeake to address this concern to the state rather than undo the progress we have made. There must be a way to adjust the law's wording in a way that protects farmers' livelihoods while allowing backyard flock-keepers their property rights.


Mary Lou Burke

Update: On November 26, 2013, Chesapeake City Council voted to make the "hen ordinance" permanent. The meeting may be viewed online:  fast forward to 1:19 to see some great pro-chicken speeches and the City Council's reaction.

Update: Both the Virginia House and Senate voted to modify the state law to give animal control officers the option to seize a dog caught in the act of preying on poultry. The previous mandated been to kill it outright. Votes occurred in February of 2014.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

City Council Work Session and the Hen Ordinance

I started a group, 4 Chesapeake Hens, that successfully lobbied City Council to allow up to six hens on all single-family residential lots with certain restrictions. But Council passed the ordinance with a sunset clause. This means that Council must vote by December 20, 2013, to continue the law, or our rights to keep the hens will lapse.

Tonight Chesapeake City Council had a work session, and part of that work session pertained to the hen ordinance. Video of the work session is available online, and the discussion of hens starts at about 57 minutes into the meeting.To summarize:

John King, the Zoning Administrator, said that during the past year his office has received 19 general calls in opposition to the ordinance, and 18 "service requests" or complaints about chickens at a particular address. Complaints regarded an excess of chickens over the limit of six birds, roosters, noise, and loose chickens. He also mentioned that 34 chickens have been taken in by Animal Control in the 1-year period. He expressed concerns that the city had no means of tracking the number of residents that are keeping chickens, and he feared that over time the number of residents keeping chickens, and thus the number of complaints, will increase. He mentioned that investigating these calls is "time-consuming" for his department.

He referenced a recent memo from his department that outlines three potential courses of action that City Council could take on November 26, when the hen ordinance is on the City Council agenda. The City could:
1. Vote to continue the ordinance with its current wording,
2. Vote to extend the time for study and possible revision of the ordinance, or
3. Let the ordinance lapse, so that chickens would once again be illegal in most residential areas. He mentioned that those who already have chickens would then be able to continue to keep them on their property as a legal, non-conforming use.

Councilman Robert Ike, the City Council member who proposed the hen ordinance and secured the votes to pass it last November, asked questions about the 34 chickens that were picked up by Animal Control. It turns out that 27 of those chickens came from one address and were part of an ongoing problem from before the time when the hen ordinance was enacted.

Councilman Lonnie Craig asked for numbers of complaints and problems this year compared to the previous year. He did not get this data, but he did get an admission that the complaints have been "time-consuming but fairly low," in response. Craig concluded that it seems there have been "no major outbreak of chicken problems or chicken terrorism" in Chesapeake over the last year, a comment that drew chuckles from the audience.

Council member Suzy Kelly asked if there had been any complaints about the coops themselves or about the confinement of the chickens. The answer was that there have been no complaints about the coops other than one complaint about its location. An investigation showed that this coop was legal and the requisite distance from the property line.

Councilman Rick West raised questions about a state ordinance that mandates the killing of dogs that have attacked chickens. West explained that a conversation with a Council Member of a nearby community raised this concern in conversation. Jan L. Proctor, the City Attorney, explained that there is a state ordinance that mandates that an Animal Control Officer who witnesses a dog in the act of killing a chicken has a "duty" to kill the dog, and that other bystanders have a right (but not an obligation) to do so.There are also state ordinances, she said, regarding the number of times a dog attacks a chicken before it is deemed a confirmed poultry-killer and subject to being put down. West said that this consideration is important to him.

This concern has been addressed in a previous blog post, if readers wish to see our group's position on this issue. Our group more recently sent a detailed email addressing this issue as well.

Council Member Debbie Ritter asked if any of the City Departments had suggestions for the refinement of the ordinance, but got a negative response. She was told that people either are OK with having chickens next to them, or they are not, and changes in the regulation of the chickens are unlikely to change that. Most of the chicken-owners so far have been good neighbors and have caused no problems. She was told that the problem is the possibility of this changing over time and with enforcement, since the City has limited access to people's backyards. Ritter also asked if the animal shelter must take in fowl under state law. She was told the shelter must, since chickens are domestic animals, but she asked that this be checked on. She also had questions about the clarity of the ordinance on the issue of containment, and that a judge had raised questions about the clarity of the ordinance in regard to the chickens' housing. Ritter also said that at the meeting on the 26th she expected speakers from the Animal Services Board and the Agriculture Commission to address Council.

My own conclusion from all this is that we must not be complacent about the hen ordinance. The vote on the 26th is important. There are those within the City government and on City Council who are against the ordinance,  and there will probably be some speakers against the ordinance. We need to get our ducks (hens?) in a row and line up some positive speakers on various topics for the 26th. We also need to contact our Council Members, thank them for the opportunity to have hens, and keep reminding them in positive ways that this issue is important to us. We need to get as many supporters as we can at the City Council meeting on November 26, dressed in green, to support our speakers and our cause.

The meeting will start on Tuesday, November 26, at 6:30 PM in the Council Chambers at Chesapeake City Hall at 306 Cedar Rd. Those who wish to speak must sign up before the meeting begins. There are speaker cards that can be filled out at City Hall before 6:30, or speakers can call to register by calling the City Clerk's office at 382-6151 during office hours of 8 AM through 5 PM weekdays.

 Update: On November 26, 2013, Chesapeake City Council voted to make the "hen ordinance" permanent. The meeting may be viewed online:  fast forward to 1:19 to see some great pro-chicken speeches and the City Council's reaction.

Update: In February of 2014 the Virginia legislature modified the law to give Animal Control Officers the option to seize a dog caught preying on poultry.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Let's Thank City Council This Thanksgiving!

4 Chesapeake Hens is launching a thank-you note campaign! As Thanksgiving approaches, let's write our City Council members short, heartfelt notes in gratitude for our freedom to have laying hens in our residential backyards. Personalized, handwritten notes are OK and even encouraged. Keep messages short but positive.

Printed note cards can be purchased inexpensively at discount stores or dollar stores. Send them individually to the Council members at their home addresses as printed on the City's website. Put cute pictures of your hens, your coop, your garden that is thriving with your chickens' help, your kids enjoying your chickens, etc., in the notes. Even better, enlist the family's help, and get the kids to write some of the notes, too. Be sure to put your return address on the note cards so Council can contact you if they have questions or want to follow up. I used the same return address stickers I put on the envelopes inside the note cards to save space, and then I wrote my phone number at the bottom of the sticker.

Act now! Remember, the "hen ordinance" will be on the City Council agenda on Tuesday, November 26. There is a sunset clause on the original ordinance, so Council must vote to keep the law so we can continue to keep our hens legally. Mark your calendars and plan to be there to support the cause. Numbers and visibility make a difference. The meeting starts at 6:30, but you will need to sign up in advance of the meeting if you plan to speak.

In case you're curious, I already wrote my notes to Council. They are ready to go in the mail tomorrow, along with pictures of my favorite pullet, Blue the Blue-Laced Red Wyandotte. It is a joy to be part of a movement that is preserving beautiful heritage breeds like hers.

Blue the Blue-Laced Red Wyandotte LOVES her home and wants to keep it!
Update: On November 26, 2013, Chesapeake City Council voted to make the "hen ordinance" permanent. The meeting may be viewed online:  fast forward to 1:19 to see some great pro-chicken speeches and the City Council's reaction.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Chesapeake Chickens vs. Sunset: Soon Resolved?

Almost two years ago I started a Facebook Page, 4 Chesapeake Hens. Through this page I successfully organized a group that convinced our City Council to allow up to six laying hens on all single-family lots with certain restrictions. Chesapeake, Virginia, thus became a regional leader in the local foods, sustainability, and backyard chicken movement, with cities such as Portsmouth, Norfolk, Hampton, and Richmond later following suit by loosening up the legal restrictions that had prevented backyard micro-flocks. Of these, Chesapeake probably allows residents the most freedom. We have the shortest setbacks for the coop from the property line and no need for a license or inspection to have a flock. Coops must, however, comply with laws regarding accessory structures, so a permit for the coop is a definite possibility, depending on its size and structure.

Council put a one-year sunset clause on the new ordinance. This means that City Council must vote by December 20, 2013, to make the new law permanent, or Chesapeake's residential chickens will once again become illegal. Many people think this is highly unlikely unless backyard hens cause massive problems in the city, which they have not. This report, based on statistics acquired from the City under Virginia's Freedom of Information Act, shows that complaints about chickens in residential areas have actually decreased since the change in the law. And our group's contacts inside local government tell us that there have been few or no problems with chickens in residential areas since our group published this report.

Nevertheless, our group does not want to be complacent about our rights. During the late summer months we ran a "City Council Member of the Week" campaign, but with residential hens coming up on the agenda, we need to take further action. During a recent meeting of our leadership, here is what we have decided to do. This plan was revised on 11/4, when we were informed that hens will be on the agenda on November 26, NOT in December like we were originally (but tentatively) informed:

1. TJ "The DJ" Thompson will speak for our group as a "non-agenda" speaker on November 12. He will politely let Council know to expect contact from residents in favor of backyard hens.

2.  We will run a "thank-you note" letter-writing campaign from November 12 up to the vote on November 26, with brief but positive expressions of appreciation for the opportunity to keep hens. We recommend that these be very short and contain pictures for Council to view. These should be sent to the City Council members' home addresses as posted on the City's website. City Council has always appreciated how polite, well-informed, and positive our group is, and this occasion should be no different.

3. Members of our group are collecting letters of support from local businesses, neighbors, and civic groups. We hope to have these collected by the Friday before Thanksgiving, November 22, with an eye to having these copied and collated to present to Council by one of our speakers on the 26th. Or, better yet, send these directly to City Council in order to give members time to read them before the actual vote.

4. Council will have a work session on November 19 at 4:30 PM (subject to change). It would be great if one of our group could sit in on the meeting and report back on what was presented. I will go if I can, but I will not know until I know what time they meet. The public is not permitted to speak at work sessions, but they are open to the public. Council will also notice our presence there.

5. On the day of the vote, November 26, we will come to the City Council meeting with all the forces we can muster. We will wear the color green, the color of sustainability, so Council can see our numbers in the chambers. "Green means go!" in respect to continuing to allow us to keep our hens. We will make sure several of us sign up to speak that day, all with different, positive things to say about hens and our rights to keep them. Hopefully, Council will then vote to allow us to have them on a long-term basis.

Council meetings take place at City Hall at 306 Cedar Rd. They start at 6:30 PM, and anyone who wishes to speak must sign up in advance of the meeting. This can either be done at City Hall or by calling the City Clerk's office at 382-6151 during office hours of 8 AM through 5 PM weekdays.

 Update: On November 26, 2013, Chesapeake City Council voted to make the "hen ordinance" permanent. The meeting may be viewed online:  fast forward to 1:19 to see some great pro-chicken speeches and the City Council's reaction.