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Backyard Chickens In The Nation’s Capitol?

December 2nd, 2009 · 3 Comments · Posted in food news, urban agriculture

There goes the neighborhood?

There goes the neighborhood?

Caryn Ernst had not seen herself as a chicken crusader when she hatched some eggs for her daughters’ elementary school project. But after D.C. Animal Control swooped in and snatched the six-week-old chicks out of her Capitol Hill back yard, Ernst found a new mission She teamed up with her local city council member and drafted a new law that would liberalize chicken ownership in the nation’s capitol.

Could this be the start of a movement?

Good food advocates might be surprised to learn that owning chickens was not, strictly speaking, illegal in the District of Columbia. You just never heard about them because the law was so stringent, legal ownership was practically impossible. Chickens could not be kept within 50 feet of any “habitable residence.” If you wanted chickens, you had to apply for a permit. But even the agency charged with issuing the permits had no clue.

As Ernst explains, this is a far cry from days not too long ago when growing food–and, yes even raising chickens–was not at all uncommon in the city. Many jurisdictions drifted away from the grow-your-own ethic, but now people fed up with industrial food are pushing back. Why shouldn’t chickens be legal? As long as they’re not roosters, keeping neighbors up half the night, and as long as you maintain a clean hen house, there’s no reason a few chickens should disturb anyone. And the protein they produce in the form of eggs is one of the best to be found anywhere.

The new law, introduced by Council Member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) would hardly open the floodgates. It would require that anyone wanting to raise chickens in the city obtain written consent from 80 percent of neighbors within 100 feet. That’s quite a bit more restrictive than other jurisdictions. Even New York City has a more liberal chicken policy. Is it any surprise many New Yorkers are raising their own chickens?

According to Ernst, at least 30 cities have recently passed new laws permitting backyard chickens. The measure she drafted with Wells is now pending before the Council’s health committee. What will be most interesting to see is whether the chairman of that committee, David A. Catania (I-At Large), will be in any hurry to bring the measure up for a public hearing. Catania has been embroiled in efforts to legalize gay marriage in the District. That measure just passed the Council and is certain to stir up a stormy debate in Congress. Will Catania have a moment to spare for backyard chickens?

You can read all about it in Caryn Ernst’s post on the DC Food for All blog, which has started a campaign to pass new chicken legislation and offers chicken enthusiasts a petition to sign. We encourage everyone who cares about sustainable food and self reliance to get behind a new chicken law, hopefully without the onerous neighbor approval provision. We will be following this closely.

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  • Pattie

    Ed: Will people also be required to get approval for trampolines, playsets, pools and dogs from their neighbors? How is responsible chicken-keeping in the privacy of your backyard different?

  • iowafoodgeek

    check out property rights laws in the 5th amendment.
    from the CATO Institute; Handbook for Policymakers “…people are not required to obtain a permit before they can use their property—no more than people today are required to obtain a permit before they can speak freely. Rather, the burden is upon those who object to a given use to show how it violates a right of theirs. That amounts to having to show that their neighbo…r’s use takes something they own free and clear. If they fail, the use may continue.”
    South Portland ran up against neighbor restrictions and the 5th amendment saved them from letting their neighbors decide what they would and would not do on their own property.

    CLUC (Citizens for the Legalization of Urban Chickens) on facebook:

  • Sylvie

    Best wishes for chicken raising 1 mile from the White House, Ed!