So can I keep chickens? Zoning laws, the “Debbie Downer” of Urban Farming by John

John Reinhardt is an urban planner, writer, photographer, and urban gardener. An avid cook, John is interested in the intersection of urban design, sustainability, and food systems planning. He currently resides in Washington DC and works for the American Planning Association. He currently writes Grown in the City, a blog about urban gardening and food systems planning.

UPDATE: Mea culpa – It is actually solely Department of Health codes that prevent the keeping of chickens and bees in DC proper. While urban food systems is a topic of discussion with the zoning code update, it is not any action by the Department of Planning that explicitly prevents chickens and bees.

One of the hot topics in urban agriculture and urban planning these days is chickens (or goats or any other type of animal typically associated more with the country farm than the urban homestead).  One of the most common questions is “can I keep them?”  The short answer is – probably not, at least legally.  DC has confusing, even downright ambiguous, laws regarding bee keeping.  Laws about other animals are more explicit.  For example, “Section 902 of the Animal Control Code requires hens to be 50 ft. from any residence.”  Rules are a bit more lax in some counties in the metropolitan region.

But why is keeping animals in the city such a problem?  One word: zoning.

Continues after the jump.

For a little urban planning 101, zoning laws were first created in New York City in 1916 with the intention to protect health, safety and welfare.  Think about New York, Chicago, or Pittsburgh in the early 1900s: Unchecked capitalism, physically manifested as tenement houses, soot covered buildings and polluted water.  Zoning was viewed as the solution to urban ills.  In 1926, zoning was upheld as constitutional by the Supreme Court in the Village of Euclid, Ohio, v. the Ambler Realty Company.  Separation of land uses became the norm and “incompatible uses” such as chicken farms and stockyards, were banished from many cities.  (The advent of zoning also largely influenced and encouraged the pattern of the resource-consumptive suburban sprawl…but that’s a different – and much longer – post).  Flash forward nearly a century, and many cities have only recently started updating their zoning to reflect today’s sensibilities about mixed-use, density, and urban agriculture.  DC is in the process of a zoning code rewrite as we speak (it hasn’t been updated since 1958) and urban agriculture and food access is being considered as part of the update.

So how can you voice your opinion if you’d like to keep chickens or bees?  The zoning code rewrite, which kicked off in 2007 with a series of public meetings, is coming to a close, but it may not be too late to contact the Planning Department to let them know your opinions.  Until the codes change in the district, however, those “local” eggs and honey are illicit items!

46 Comment

  • There are plenty of good reasons why the zoning rules prohibiting urban \farming\ make good sense. But rather than get too worked-up over this, let’s just let this urban farming fad run its course.

    • I agree.

      On a related note, I wonder if this would hurt property values, and if that in and of itself would make this fizzle out before it gains much steam.

  • I’ve heard that chickens attract rats/mice. Is there any truth to that?

    • Yes. Not to mention raccoons and opossums, both of which we have in abundance in Ward 6 where this whole effort took off. (Tommy’s sponsoring this change.)

      • Yep – rats. lots of rats. I had friends who did it a few years ago here and gave up because of the rat problems it caused. I loved getting fresh eggs though…

        • I have them on my farm and haven’t had any additional problems with rats or mice. Keep things clean, and they’ll keep the bug population down.

    • no more than unattended dog feces

      • False.

        Chickens attract rats, oppossums, raccoons and other creatures for a variety of reasons. Rats are attracted to the extraneous feed lying around, as are the other critters who are also interested in actually eating the chickens and their eggs. In addition all that straw makes for good nesting material.

        In addition, the sheer volume of chicken sh*t dwarfs that of even the most prolific dog or cat. Chickens poop constantly, so fresh excrement is always available for scavengers that are interested in it.

        • and most people who leave them in their yard will obviously just let it bio-accumulate into a titanic mass of feces, just like dilligent dog owners, right?

          • It’s realistic to pick up after a dog 3 times or so a day, or to scoop a cat’s litter box frequency. It is not likely that chicken owners will clean their crap every time they go.

            Plus, that is only a very small reason why chickens attract other undesirable critters.

  • I worked on our small family farm when I was a kid and we had chickens (out in the country). They’re great little critters, but in not-so-large numbers, they generate a good stink, not-insignificant noise, and a surprising amount of poop.

    This may raise issues of agricultural runoff collecting in the alleys or sidewalks where kids play… not sure, just playing Devil’s Buddy.

    Also, in contrast to every cartoon version I ever saw, roosters crow whenever they damn well please (noon, 4 am, whatever), not just conveniently at dawn. So please consider your neighbors when thinking about whether to raise chickens.

    We don’t eat eggs in our house nearly enough to justify it – and I’m not about to raise them for their meat. I’ve butchered one chicken in my life and that was just too brutal for me!

  • I can appreciate the notion of having fresh eggs and the occasional fresh chicken that would come from having a few chickens in the yard, but the zoning regulations are there for a reason. All too easily I can picture residents with absolutely no experience in animal husbandry getting in over their heads pretty quickly, resulting in way more noise and groundwater pollution than will be tolerated. And before long, animal cruelty issues arise with the really irresponsible ones. And one too many insufferable cock jokes would really put it over the edge.

  • I have lived in cities where people have (illegally) kept chickens and occasionally a rooster. While chickens are not as noisy as a rooster, they too make noise which dogs seem to have a pretty sensitive ear for. The chickens would set off a cascade of animal sounds in my alley every day.

    It sucked.

  • I own property adjacent to Tommy Wells’s house, and if he succeeds in getting this through Council, I’m going to lease my property to Perdue, who will set up a full-fledged chicken processing plant there.

  • God bless all our farmers and the rural life which is so much more natural and used to commonly exist here in the District, but today’s densely populated Washington is what it has become, more urban and less urbane, and early morning roosters and farm animals are just not conducive to modern city living in our nation’s capital.

    Talk to anybody from Key West, Florida these days of their experiences of late.

    • Ever been to Kauai? Apparently a hurricane unleashed chickens across the island, and they’ve been breeding wild ever since. It’s quite the sight, and difficult to sleep in! 😀

      • They routinely end up as roadkill there, as well. I have no idea if the locals take them home and roast them up, though.

  • To be clear, the changes proposed by Tommy Wells only allow for chickens, so there will be no early morning (or otherwise) rooster crowing. Hens are still noisy though. Nevertheless, anyone who’s ever spent any time anywhere near chickens (I was, at one point, a food science major, which like all ag majors, had to spend time in the chicken coops) knows they are filthy creatures. Excrement aside, feathers and straw and feed end up strewn everywhere, even for very few birds.

    Luckily, the provision will require all who want to keep chickens to get the approval of at least 80% of their neighbors and if even one neighbor writes a letter of opposition, they won’t be allowed to move forward.

    There were weeks of debate on this issue on the New Hill East listserv.

  • Yes, there are plenty of good reasons for/against this type of action (many of which have been raised here) – I think it’s worth a debate on both sides. I’ve heard that there was a rooster in one community (Mount Pleasant, perhaps?) that caused quite a stir on the listserv (i.e. “Who owns the f#&(^*& rooster that keeps crowing at 4 am?”)

    That said, there are plenty of places in the district and in Virginia where a chicken or two could be kept by a -knowledgeable and responsible- owner without much problem with runoff, or pollution, or noise. I don’t think this is a “one size fits all” kind of thing, which is why approval of neighbors is probably a wise step.

    Would I have the time and want to put in the effort to keep them? Probably not, besides the fact that it’s currently not legal.

  • Does Wells’ bill include additional funding for Animal Control for all the abused, neglected, and stray chickens?

    Nichole, I have not yet read the bill, but “chickens” doesn’t mean just females — it means boths sexes, hens and roosters.

    I am really glad to see all the levelheaded opposition to this bill. Thanks sane people!

    • I’ve asked Tommy’s office, and it’s just hens. Sorry, didn’t mean to use chickens/hens interchangeably.

      Regardless, I will fight against having any of these winged vermin on my block.

      • I (personally) wouldn’t go as far as calling them “winged vermin,” (there are some people who find certain breeds of dogs/cats just as gross) but it seems that if someone objects to having them on their block, they won’t be allowed, so you should be cool!

        • I admit to a strong anti-bird bias. Chickens are some of the worst though. I hated having to go into the coops and pull sh*t-covered eggs, stuck with feathers and slimy mucus. (Chickens only have one exit shoot, so to speak.) Blecch. I do still eat chicken and eggs (I know a lot of folks from those early college days who do not b/c they’re so grossed out by how filthy they are) but I like them to come to me already dead and cleaned. (Killing and plucking chickens is also unpleasant.)

          Does anyone know if the proposed change allows for butchering? I believe at some point I heard that it did not, but I never heard anything definite on that.

        • ah

          I have to say I’m not a big fan of the neighbor veto.

          Putting aside whether chickens should be allowed, shouldn’t the rules be based on some neutral standard that’s not “the old biddy down the block didn’t complain”?

          • was that an intentional pun? pretty clever.

          • You may have a point, @ah, but as “the old biddy down the block” I am grateful for that provision. Is it selfish? Yes. But so is wanting to raise noisy, dirty, smelly barnyard animals in a densely populated urban area b/c the eggs at the farmers market aren’t fresh enough and you want to get in on the latest yuppie fad.

            Yes, I am a complete NIMBY when it comes to this issue. But at least I have experience in a coop and my opposition doesn’t stem from fear of the unknown. Quite the opposite in fact.

          • @ Nichole – I totally agree with you!

            Having grown up on farms, I’ll join you in saying that I don’t want those birds in my back yard. I’ve cleaned my fair share of coops, gathered nasty eggs, herded hens back to the coop at night, etc. and I honestly can’t imagine how it would work in little row house yards. You may be able to coop chickens at night, but the smell, noise, and actual birds for most of the day will inevitably spill into places you don’t want when space is at such a premium.

            No chickens, please.

  • why would you want to raise a chix in an urban environment? this is why you opted to live in a city and have access to MANY farmer’s markets. This is as retarded as people complaining about facebook privacy stuff…its called SOCIAL NETWORKING…
    …i need to find a solitary island with an endless beer supply to go live far far away from people.

    • Just to play devils advocate, there are plenty of houses in North West that have large enough back yards, and are technically in “urban” environments, that wouldn’t cause any trouble.

      I’m not for people who are inexperienced or don’t have the space to keep chickens or bees, but I don’t think such a blanket “no” for the entire city is necessary.

    • some people want to be able to raise their own animals, same as some want to raise their own veggies, rather than pay for expensive ‘organic’ and ‘grass fed’ meat at the Farmers’ Market.

      I see no problem with it (and no need to tell these people to pack up and move to BFE), as long as the neighbors OK it. I personally wouldn’t.

  • If this measure passes, people are also going to have to contend with chicken thieves. Those things will go missing from your back yards like so many bicycles.

  • I’m looking forward to the real life re-enactment of the sorely overlooked “The Fantastic Mr. Fox”

  • The fact we are even debating chickens in the city is absurd. What the hell are people thinking? They are not presently permitted for a reason. Someone didn’t just wake up one day and decide to discrimminate against them. They are simply not sanitarily appropriate for an urban environment. They are also a Goddamned nuisance. If you’re that freakin earth-friendly, keep them on a free-range farm somewhere. Geez.

  • I don’t want chickens in my yard, but I can barely keep my garden alive, so I’m probably not an ideal candidate.

    How is a small chicken coop any worse as a magnet for critters than an open compost heap, unsheltered trash, home with an outdoor cat, home with dog owners who do not regularly clean up their dogs, or better yet, the dumpsters of any given restaraunt in any urban environment.

    I have friends with urban chickens in a western city and they’ve experienced NONE of the problems some people are so certain would be imminent.

  • I spent a couple of weeks in a house in a very urban neighborhood — mostly late 19th/early 20th century rowhouses, like DC’s older areas, but with a lot of much older houses, some dating from the 1600s — in Ghent, Belgium, a city about the population of Richmond, Virginia (though surely much more compact). There were several yards within two or three blocks where chickens were kept, apparently without too much fuss. Each seemed to have only two or three birds, and the yards were nearly as tidy as any others, no stench or noticeable mess.

    Still, I don’t know if it can work in DC, or any other big city lacking the legendary ingrained cleanliness of the Dutch and their cousins the Flemish.

    (Captcha: motorcar in)

  • I’m surprised by the amount of vitriol in here. Having a couple hens is a perfectly reasonable hobby and is honestly not a big deal. Having taken care of (and owned), tropical fish, poultry, and my dog, I can honestly say that my dog is the noisiest and is the most work.

    @Nichole – what sort of alleged ag. college did you go to where you consider picking eggs from a coop disgusting? What on earth did you do when people asked you to spread manure or slaughter a cow? And you’re not being a NIMBY on this issue, you’re trying to dictate what other people are allowed to do in their backyards.

    In all honesty, this level of kvetching about what other people do in their yards sounds incredibly obnoxious. If you don’t like seeing what your neighbors do in their yard, build a fence and do whatever you want in your yard. If you want a strong homeowners association with a bunch of covenants so you can tell everybody what their yard has to look like, move to Fairfax.

    • I spent the first two of my undergrad yrs at UMD in the food science program. Mostly lab work, but still had to do ag stuff. Pretty much everyone I was in class with considered the chickens the worst of what we worked with (pigs, horses, cows, sheep were way less gross). Slaughtering those animals and spreading manure didn’t bother me (or most of my classmates) as much as the chickens. Of course, I switched course after two years and finished my government & politics and business degrees in the remaining two yrs b/c I simply changed my mind about what I wanted to do with my life.

      It’s not about SEEING what my neighbors do – it’s about being affected by it. Do whatever the eff you want – as long as it in no way affects me. Chickens next door affect me w/ their noise,the feathers/seeds/straw flying around, and the attraction of raccoons, opossums and rats. Building a fence (which, as I am on a corner property in the Capitol Hill Historic District, is only possible within certain limits; I don’t need to move to Fairfax for all kinds of rules and regs, thanks) doesn’t negate those effects.

      Sorry that your dog is the most work. My dog is probably the least work of any animal I’ve had to work with or owned as a pet. And she is nowhere near the noisiest. That honor goes to the pet duck I had growing up.

  • What people have been talking about here are externalities from keeping chickens, so I think it is perfectly reasonable to care what others in a residentially zoned area are doing if the effect goes outside of the backyard.

  • @Ed –

    I’ve seen very little valid discussion of any externalities here. Yes, roosters crow and the Tyson factory farm out in Arkansas is a source of pollution, but neither of those objections are relevant to keeping a couple yard hens.

    I guess that what gets my dander up is that I think it boils down to is that people don’t like the aesthetic because they want DC to be all Wardman row houses with a postage stamp garden in the front, a parking pad in the back, and granite counter tops in the kitchen.

    Yes, it is reasonable to object if your neighbor’s place is blighted. But if they want to keep a different pet than you prefer, paint their house a different color than you’d like, etc. etc., then I think it is your obligation to shrug it off and realize that you don’t live there.

    We’re not talking about venomous cobras here. It’s a 5 poundish bird. Look at the picture at the top. If one of those bothers you so much, you should lock yourself in the basement and never leave the house.

  • This is hilarious.

    I have a few chickens out at my farm. No, I don’t have rats, vermin, and an obscene amount of chicken shit. Really. There are ways to do this that are probably more sanitary than most of your neighbors. You just have to like, clean things once in a while.

    They’re terribly cute little creatures and the fresh eggs are wonderful. They’re not very loud and they’re really very funny. They do not need a lot of space – a row house backyard, tops.

  • @Joe.

    I’ll leave it up to you to decide how valid you feel the various arguments are, but a quick search of this thread mentions the following:

    potential housing value issues (my idea)

    I think the effect of most of the above don’t necessarily stay within the confines of one’s backyard.

    Thus, the use of the term ‘externality’.

    I think it’s pretty reasonable to not expect this in a residential area, but, whatever, call me crazy.

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