Arlington Egg Project promotes backyard chickens

February 22, 2012

Behind his home in Arlington County, Ed Fendley grows cucumbers and tomatoes, herbs and lettuce, sweet and hot peppers. “This year, I’m gonna rock some corn,” he says.

Fendley, 46, is proud of his urban garden. But gazing at the 200-square-foot plot, he senses something is missing.

Chickens.

Fendley, a Bluemont resident, yearns to be part of the backyard chicken movement that’s taken root in many of America’s largest cities — Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and even Baltimore — but not the nation’s capital.

Arlington is one of several Washington area jurisdictions that restricts residents from raising chickens in their back yards. Fendley is hoping to change that.

With a small group of like-minded neighbors, Fendley launched a campaign in 2011 called the Arlington Egg Project. Their mission: to encourage the county board to amend a long-standing ordinance.

Currently, Arlington County allows residents to keep hens, but a setback requirement means chickens must be at least 100 feet from a neighboring lot line.

“You would need an acre or more of land to keep chickens” in Arlington, Fendley says. “This is an effective prohibition.”

Arlington’s ban is not unique in the D.C. area. In Fairfax City and Alexandria, chickens must kept at least 100 and 200 feet from the property line, respectively. Chicken coops in Montgomery County must be 100 feet from residences or businesses. And in the District, they are illegal.

The Egg Project wants more Arlington residents to be permitted to raise hens, but the proposal lacks specifics.

“We need to figure out what makes sense for our community. That might mean a limit of three hens per family, or eight hens.”

Why the fuss over eggs?

“Fresh eggs taste better,” says Fendley. “When you have a hen eating something it thinks is really yummy — live greens, weeds, bugs, insects — you can taste and see the difference. Scramble a backyard egg and scramble an egg from a factory chicken that had an unhappy life, and you’ll see.”

He adds that home-laid eggs help cut back on energy use and pollution associated with large-scale agriculture and transporting food. Plus, chickens eat garden pests and provide free fertilizer.

“It’s good for us. It’s good for the environment. And it’s good for the hens.”

But where Fendley sees a win-win situation — and brunch — others just smell chicken poop.

Criticism of backyard chickens includes noise, messy coops, the possibility of spreading diseases such as salmonella and attracting hungry predators.

Animal rights activists worry that owners can’t care for the high-maintenance birds, which can contract diseases like “pasty butt” and “fowl plague.”

The Egg Project has tried to educate residents about hen-keeping and to calm these concerns: Hens, unlike roosters, make minimal noise, Fendley says. And smell, disease and even predators are all in the control of the owners, who would be required to maintain hygienic, humane nesting areas.

The group has gathered more than 1,000 signatures for a petition to county board members, whose vice chairman, Walter Tejada, has expressed support for the Egg Project.

According to board member Jay Fisette, the county will launch an “urban agriculture initiative” in March and charge a task force with studying food, health and sustainability in Arlington.

“We’re already doing a lot of things right,” such as the community garden and a food assistance center, says Fisette. “But there’s more work to be done.”

Fisette says that members of the task force, who have not yet been named, will look at issues including the availability of low-cost, nutritious food; composting and rooftop gardening; and encouraging food cart vendors to use locally grown ingredients.

“The egg issue will be wrapped into this initiative,” Fisette says.

He notes that the backyard chicken issue will not be the study’s main priority; the task force will focus on hunger and obesity issues in the county, especially among lower-income residents.

The urban agriculture initiative would last one year, meaning the soonest that Fendley could walk into his back yard and collect fresh eggs would be March 2013. He says it would be worth the wait.

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