Feathers Are Flying

Chickens roam in Christina Morales's back yard in Prince William County, although zoning laws ban farm animals from most residential areas.
Chickens roam in Christina Morales's back yard in Prince William County, although zoning laws ban farm animals from most residential areas. (Photos By Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)
By Nick Miroff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 14, 2007

When a neighbor's rooster began crowing in the middle of her pool party last month and everyone laughed, Virginia Paris did, too, but privately, she was seething. Already, marauding hens had ransacked her flower garden; now, an unruly cock was conjuring Old MacDonald for her guests.

"It was embarrassing," said Paris, who lives with her family at the top of a tidy cul-de-sac in Dale City. She and her husband have since staked a "for sale" sign to their lawn, seeing the rooster moment as a low point in the long decline of their feelings about the area.

"It was too much," Paris said. "I can't live with roosters in my neighborhood."

Backyard poultry have been popping up all over Prince William County recently, to the amusement-- and alarm -- of residents and county officials. County zoning laws ban farm animals from most residential areas, but in the past year, inspectors have tallied as many as 32 chicken violations, a large increase from 2004, when they had three.

The county does not keep records as to violators' ethnicity, but in most cases, officials and homeowners say, the offending fowl are introduced by Hispanic immigrant families who want to keep the birds as pets. Fines are rarely levied, because the vast majority of complaints are resolved through voluntary compliance, according to inspectors. But the sight and sound of suburban chickens are one more worry for those who see the birds as part of the escalating culture clash in Prince William, in which previous skirmishes have broken out over illegal construction, overcrowding, vehicles parked on lawns and other "quality-of-life" issues.

This week, the Prince William Board of County Supervisors unanimously approved an anti-illegal immigrant resolution, saying that it will diminish those behaviors by driving out the group. The resolution directs police officers to check the residency status of anyone in their custody they suspect is an illegal immigrant and directs county staff to determine legal ways to deny access to public services and benefits for illegal immigrants.

It's unclear what effect, if any, this will have on the county's unlawful chickens, some of which are brought to Prince William by homesick legal residents. As Leiby Rodriguez, a Dale City resident, explained, her younger brother recently brought home a rooster and a hen because the birds reminded him of his grandfather's farm in the Dominican Republic. When zoning inspectors ordered the family to get rid of the animals, Rodriguez and her mother cooked them for dinner. Her brother bitterly abstained.

"He was really sad about the whole thing," Rodriguez said.

Other counties with large Hispanic immigrant communities say they do not have a chicken trend comparable to Prince William's. In Fairfax County, complaints are declining, with only seven registered so far in 2007. Complaints have held steady in Prince George's County, officials there said, averaging a dozen a year. In Montgomery County, zoning laws allow residents to keep poultry in their back yards provided the birds are not within 100 feet of a dwelling.

So for now, the problem appears to be most pronounced in Prince William, where relatively affordable housing has attracted a large influx of Latin American immigrants in recent years. Many newcomers are from rural areas in Mexico and Central America, where chickens roam without fear of zoning inspectors.

County officials and residents say they are sensitive to this fact and do not want to disparage others' cultures and customs. "I'm Hispanic; I understand," said Paris, a native of Uruguay. "We're open-minded. But this is an urban environment."

Another neighbor, retired Army Master Sgt. Jim Lovett, sees the situation in less uncertain terms. "The law is the law," he said. "If they want to raise chickens, they can buy a farm and raise anything they want."

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