Saturday, January 3, 2015

How to get backyard chickens legalized in Virginia's cities: one perspective

I am the founder of a grassroots network, 4 Chesapeake Hens, that successfully lobbied the Chesapeake City Council to make up to six "female chickens" legal in the backyards of all single-family residential lots, with certain restrictions.

Bernadette Barber is a Virginia Farmer who is pushing for the Virginia Food Freedom Act. This act, if passed, would allow all Virginians to sell their homemade foods and baked goods legally to others under the following conditions:

  1. The sale is made face-to-face,
  2. The maker's name and address is labeled on the item sold,
  3. The list of ingredients is included on the label.
Right now Bernadette cannot legally make a pie with farm-fresh eggs and other ingredients grown right on her own farm and sell it to her neighbors. To do that legally would require government inspection and approval.

This makes little sense to me.

Anyway, Bernadette says her group has been getting many inquiries about backyard chickens. She asked me to write a post about how to get them legalized in cities. I agreed, so here is my advice:

1. Have a thick skin. In the course of your efforts you will hear all kinds of negative comments about what you are trying to do, about how City Council will never listen to you because you're not a rich developer, etc. If you feel you are right, keep going. If you get answers from government officials, and they don't sound right because they don't jibe with your research (see below) or don't seem well documented by facts, don't give up.

2. At the same time, listen to people. If these same people are spreading misinformation, find out what it is so you can do your research and counter it. If there are valid concerns, work on addressing them.

For example, a Virginia "depredation law" originally required Animal Control Officers who caught a dog in the act of killing a chicken to kill the dog on the spot. This concern was unsuccessfully raised by those who opposed backyard hens in Chesapeake. And it has been one of the roadblocks thrown against our sister group "4 Virginia Beach Hens" in a neighboring town. This state law was disturbing, so our group combined with the Virginia Beach group to address this law at the state level. Once it came to several humane organizations' attention, we had no difficulty in getting this law changed so that ACOs had the option to seize the dog, instead. Problem solved.

3. Do your research. Our group has the reputation in Cheseapeake of being polite and extremely well-informed. This has gone a long way with City Council.

Start with actually reading the ordinances that address keeping backyard chickens in your community. Don't just call zoning: actually get the ordinances and read them. They are often available online through Municode or you can go to your local public library for help.

Read all you can about backyard flocks. Read the CDC and USDA websites on keeping chickens and disease prevention, too. Other good resources are Chickens and You, including 7 false myths about urban chickens. Pat Foreman, a Virginia resident, wrote a book called City Chicks that has good information and a chapter about changing city ordinances. Any information you can get from government or university publications should carry extra weight and be even more useful. We also found it helpful to research when and why chickens were first banned in residential areas in Chesapeake.

Did you know that, under Virginia law, chickens under the age of eight weeks of age can only be sold in flocks of six or more? This is a good example of doing your research before heading to council. A neighboring municipality only allows four birds, for example. Its residents are often frustrated when they stop at a farm supply store for chicks in the spring and are told they may only buy six or more. Research leads to better planning in advance to hopefully avoid these kinds of situations.

4. Network, reminding your supporters to be polite and well-informed every step of the way. Find ways of using your volunteers' strengths: whatever they are willing to give time and commitment to. Get them working together. Use online social networks,, etc., but don't discount the importance of face-to-face time. Those willling to take the time to meet in person will mostly be the backbone of your movement. Also reach out to those contacts within city government who are sympathetic to your cause, willing to listen, and willing to work with you. They will be crucial. It is especially helpful to find those in the mayor's office or on city council who will support your efforts. Here in Chesapeake we were lucky to have the support of Councilman Robert Ike early on in the process.

Part of networking is linking up with groups in your area that might already be working on legalizing or keeping or educating about chickens. In Southeastern Virginia there's Backyard Hens for Norfolk4 Virginia Beach HensHampton Roads HensPortsmouth Hen Keepers, and Peninsula CHicken Keepers, to name the most popular and active groups other than 4 Chesapeake Hens. There are active groups in Richmond and in Fredericksburg, too.

Another networking idea is to be willing to attend local educational events for public outreach. Bring some hens with you if you can for the public to meet first-hand. While you're at it, remember to network with other "chicken groups," especially in your region and across your state. If a neighboring community with legal chickens is having a backyard "coop tour," invite your local decision-makers to attend. Give them sufficient notice. Hopefully they will attend so they can see for themselves how little noise, fuss, or odor backyard hens make.

5. Use the media to your advantage. Our group has used blogging, Facebook,  XtraNormal, Youtube, news releases, letters to the editor, Craigslist, and Twitter to advantage.  This has gotten positive exposure --free publicity!-- in our local and regional newspaper and local television station(s). Those who contact or talk to the media should always be aware that reporters may have biases. Talk to them anyway, but be cautious about what you say. Prepare some talking points in advance if time allows. Eventually you will know which reporters you can trust and which ones you cannot. Obviously, work with those who have a track record of being open-minded and fair (supportive is even better when you can get it).

6. Be prepared to appear as a cohesive, unified group in front of City Council on a regular basis. Get yourself on the agenda if you can. If not, most communities have regular times where open meetings or non-agenda items are scheduled for public input. Take advantage of these, but make sure a variety of speakers talk on various occasions on a variety of related topics. Have two or three speakers cover the evening's talking points, then invite the rest of the audience to stand at one point to show support. Get everyone in the group to wear the same color for the event. Group T-shirts or even stickers make a visual impact.

Research the rules for getting in front of council in advance. If your speakers must sign up in advance, do that. If only three minutes are allowed per speaker, be sure every speaker knows that and has actually timed the intended speech. Saad Ringa, a member of our group, has collected many of these speeches on his Youtube Channel for those who want to watch some sample speeches.

When you attend meetings, bring any supporting documents you want to submit, assuming your council allows them, and bring extra copies of these plus your written speeches to give to any reporters who show interest. Be sure they have the contact information of your group's leadership. Publish the speeches online through Google Drive and share them publicly.

If your item actually comes up on the agenda, find out how far in advance to submit any documentation you want council to consider and give them out within that time frame. Here in Chesapeake we were told two weeks in advance was good lead time, so that's what we did.

Another idea that worked for us was to have a "City Council Member of the Week" whose contact information we posted online. As a group, we all contacted that one council member with our talking points. We then moved on to another council member the following week.

Contact can be positive rather than confrontational. One time our group gave free samples of fresh, local eggs for Council Members' consideration. Another time we wrote them all thank-you notes just prior to Thanksgiving. Sometimes you can catch more flies with honey, as the saying goes.

If you need to make Freedom of Information Act requests to get information you need from city government to make your case, put in your requests, but realize these take time and sometimes significant money.

7. Keep at it. One of the biggest differences between "4 Chesapeake Hens" and similar efforts by individuals and community groups before us is that prior speakers took the city's initial "no" as a final answer. We never gave up. We never had to make backyard hens an election issue, but our group was prepared to do that if necessary. Any public official who says he or she supports the environment or individual property rights but is against backyard hens is not "walking the talk" and needs to be held accountable at election time.

If this seems exhausting and time-consuming, nevertheless this is probably what it will take to get change made. Our group had it easier than many other localities. We faced opposition but we were polite, well-informed, persistent, organized, and lucky.

As my husband and I shut our laying hens into their hen house at night, as we listen to their gentle and contented cooing when they lull themselves to sleep, or as we eat the best, freshest eggs we have ever tasted, we find these efforts completely worthwhile. So have many others who helped us: some of our original supporters have found the educational side of our efforts so rewarding that they went on to start Hampton Roads Hens, a group that continues advocacy, education, and outreach on a regional level. We all wish you the best of luck with your own efforts at chicken activism. If we can do anything further to help you, please let us know.