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.

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