They may not be as cute and cuddly as cats and dogs, but families nationwide are raising chickens in their own backyards. But in some cities and counties in the Washington, D.C.-metro area, backyard chicken coops are so heavily regulated that they are virtually banned.
Locals have voiced their desire to legalize chicken coops or reform restrictive laws, and as Francoise Carrier, the chair of Montgomery County’s Planning Board, noted “People who keep chickens clearly love those chickens. They’re more than just sources of eggs.”
And she’s right. Groups like the Arlington Egg Project have listed dozens of citizen testimonials in favor of changing current zoning laws for urban hen raising, commenting that “backyard hens produce extremely healthy eggs, generate manure that is fantastic for garden vegetables and lawns, and are a great educational tool for children.” Molly Carter, the proud owner of three hens living in Montgomery County, explains that “they help to protect our children and pets by eating harmful deer ticks and other insects common in the Mid-Atlantic. But even more, my children have learned so much about how to be caring and nurturing from these delightful, safe, and easy to raise creatures.”
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However, groups have also organized against allowing D.C.-area citizens from raising their own chickens in their backyards, warning of an “explosion of pest population, including both insects and rats” and crying out “the smell! Oh, god, the smell.”
But this poppycock is as ill-informed as it is condescending. So long as chicken coops are kept clean and properly maintained, they do not cause a rise in pest populations. And maintenance is simple. Coop owners need not spend more than fifteen minutes a week to keep their coops smelling fresh and full of happy and healthy chickens.
Currently, Fairfax, Loudon, Montgomery, and Arlington counties permit the ownership of chickens, but the restrictions can be harsh. Fairfax County mandates that the land owner’s property consist of at least two acres. Meanwhile, anyone in Montgomery County with a chicken coop is required to maintain a one hundred foot buffer zone between the coop and any surrounding houses. The same goes for Arlington and Loudon counties, though their buffer zones only extend sixty feet from the edge of a chicken coop. Regardless of the distance, the shortage of space in the D.C. suburbs transforms these restrictions into quasi-bans on raising chickens.
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But hopefully not for long. Activism groups like the Arlington Egg Project and Backyard Chickens in Montgomery County are bringing the fight for backyard chickens to their county boards. Other citizens have proposed petitions like “Chickens for Fairfax County” and started Facebook groups like “Backyard Chickens in Alexandria, VA.” These citizens are working to strengthen property rights in their counties, making the nation’s capital region a freer place to live.
This week, the Institute for Justice launched its National Food Freedom Initiative, which seeks to make sure the government stays out of some of the most personal decisions peolpe make every day: what we eat and how we get our food.
Let (food) freedom ring!
-- Phil Applebaum
Phil Applebaum is a Maffucci Fellow at the Institute for Justice