Hens in the backyard

A growing number people look to backyard chicken farming as a way to take control of part of their food production

September 03, 2011|By HEATHER KEELS |
  • David Gray Sr. talks about his chicken coop in the backyard of his Boonsboro home.
By Ric Dugan/Staff Photographer

Squeezed between two neighboring houses just yards from the busy North Main Street, the brick rancher David Gray Sr. shares with his son in Boonsboro looks, from the front, like a typical in-town home.

But in the backyard of the quarter-acre lot, penned in next to a thriving garden, are three, white Leghorn hens.

Gray, who bought the house two years ago, said he became interested in raising chickens after reading a book about using backyard agriculture to become more self-sufficient.

"I started a garden, that was the first thing," he said. "And then I got some apple trees, and then the chickens."

He is one of a growing number of town- and city-dwellers who are looking to backyard chicken farming as a way to take control of part of their food production, raising a squawk from some neighbors and prompting local planning officials — including those in Boonsboro — to take another look at their regulations on backyard agriculture.

Currently, Boonsboro's zoning ordinance does not allow chickens in town — something Gray said he was unaware of when he bought his chickens six months ago.

But after Town Planner and Zoning Administrator Megan Clark heard from several residents who expressed interest in raising chickens, the town council introduced a resolution in July that would revise the ordinance to allow up to three hens per lot in rural, suburban and town residential districts.

The proposed change was the subject of a public hearing last month and is to be put to a vote Tuesday night.

Among the opponents of the chicken-raising amendment are Gray's neighbors, Pam and Roger Long.

"I'm just not used to it," Pam Long explained as they sat on their back porch, less than 100 feet from Gray's chicken coop. "I've been here 35 years and we've never had it and I'm totally against it."

She said she and her husband are "country people" who have lived with chickens in farm settings, but think they are inappropriate in a town.

The Longs said they can hear the chickens clucking and, in hot weather, can smell their waste.

Gray said if the measure passes and he is allowed to keep the chickens, he plans to move their pen farther from the property line and erect a privacy fence. If the measure fails, the Grays plan to give the chickens to a friend who has a small farm in Middletown, Md., or a cousin who keeps chickens.

They have been told they can keep the chickens until the vote, but after that, if the amendment doesn't pass, the fine will be $100 a day, David Gray Jr. said.

If the measure passes, Boonsboro would be the only town in Washington County to formally allow chickens — though not necessarily the only one to have them.

In Keedysville, the charter says no livestock is allowed in town, Mayor Matthew Hull said.

"Are there chickens in town? Why yes, there are," Hull said. "It's one of those things that is overlooked until there is a problem."

In the City of Hagerstown, chickens and other farm animals are permitted only in the Agricultural Transition zoning district, a placeholder zoning district for recently annexed properties that allows property owners to keep doing what they are doing until the property is proposed for development, Zoning Administrator Stephen Bockmiller said.

At this time, only one AT district exists in the city: on Jefferson Boulevard, he said.

In the unincorporated areas of Washington County, raising chickens is allowed in some districts, but a proposed comprehensive rezoning of the Urban Growth Area would greatly expand the areas in which it is allowed.

"It's become quite a topic lately," Washington County Senior Planner Jill Baker said of small-scale chicken farming. "Mostly, it's the sustainability movement, because of the recession and the economy and all that."

At times, the county planning department has fielded as many as three to four calls a week from residents interested in raising chickens, she said.

"It's kind of a difficult situation," Baker said. "You get into the issue of, well, people moved into the growth area so they didn't have to deal with the farms — now the farms are coming to them. But on the other hand, you want to promote some sustainability."

The county has chosen to strike that balance through setback requirements and requirements for those practicing animal husbandry to submit waste management plans developed in conjunction with the University of Maryland Agricultural Extension office and the Washington County Soil Conservation District, Baker said.

Currently, raising farm animals is not allowed in the county's residential suburban or residential urban districts. Under the proposed UGA rezoning, it would be allowed in those districts, but most lots in subdivisions would be too small to allow for the required 100-foot setbacks from the chicken coop to the property lines, she said.

A balancing act

In that case, the person wishing to raise chickens would have to go before the Board of Zoning Appeals to request a variance, which neighbors would have the opportunity to support or oppose.

"That seemed to be the best way for us to kind of regulate that so people still have the ability to have their animals, but the public has their say," Baker said.

Under the proposed Boonsboro amendment, no roosters would be allowed, and the hens — no more than three — would have to be kept within an enclosure at least 20 feet from property lines.

University of Maryland extension educator Jeff Semler, who teaches a popular class on chicken raising, said a chicken operation of that scale was reasonable for a neighborhood setting.

"The consideration, of course, No. 1, is you don't want roosters, because not everyone appreciates a cock crowing at dawn," Semler said. "If you keep a few hens based on the size of your property, they hardly make any noise."

A rooster is not necessary for the hens to produce eggs, he said.

When chickens are properly cared for, there is no odor associated with them, Semler said.

"Chickens don't urinate, so you don't get a lot of moisture," he said. "Moisture is where flies come from and moisture is where smell builds up."

The majority of complaints involving chickens that Semler said he hears involve neighbors who already do not get along.

"It rarely has anything to do with the chickens," he said. "The chicken's just one of many weapons that the neighbor uses to beat the other over the head with."

Deb IntVeldt, who began keeping chickens last year on her 1.25-acre lot on Beaver Creek Road, had a simple suggestion for avoiding those situations.

"I think you would want to get permission from your neighbors if you were going to be closer, and promise sharing eggs," she said. "That's what I would do, if I had any problems. I would just make sure they were getting lots of eggs."

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