D.C. residents fight to raise poultry in the city

Sisters Ada and Leah Ernst could be reunited with their chickens.
Sisters Ada and Leah Ernst could be reunited with their chickens. (Copyright Rebecca Drobis For The Washington Post)
By Adrian Higgins
Thursday, January 7, 2010

It sort of began as a kindergarten science project. Caryn Ernst got three dozen fertilized chicken eggs to incubate so she could show children the miracle of chicks chipping their way into the world.

One dozen eggs went to Peabody Elementary School, another dozen to Watkins Elementary School and the third to the Capitol Hill home of Ernst, her husband, Josh Silverman, and their two daughters, Leah, 7, and Ada, 5. The girls attend those schools.

The family ended up with eight young birds. The intent was to keep three hens once their sex was determined; the rest would be sent back to the farm in Fauquier County where they got the eggs. With their cousins, Leah and Ada built and hand-painted a chicken coop in their small rowhouse back yard, alongside a fenced run.

Their supportive next-door neighbor has a long and public side yard that became the perfect spot for the growing chickens to stretch their legs and peck for bugs. Each had a name, including Lightning, Peep and Yellow.

One afternoon in June, Ernst was folding laundry when she heard a dog barking. She ran outside to see if the chickens were all right, only to find a police officer declaring the fowl illegal. He had summoned animal control to pick them up, and when that officer showed up, along with more police, a neighborhood scene developed. Inside the house, the girls "were pacing and sobbing," said Ernst. The animal control officer "was originally going to take them then. We were trying to negotiate a better deal so we knew where they would go," she said. He gave the family 10 days to find a home for them and so the chickens went back to the original Fauquier County farm.

Determined to bring them back, lawfully, Ernst called the city's health department, but "no one seemed to know what the law was." A spokesman for the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs told me in May that city law doesn't permit the keeping of chickens. But Ernst came across municipal regulations for animal control that in theory would allow the keeping of chickens if certain requirements were met. The trouble, said Ernst, is that the regulation requires a coop to be set back so far from neighbors that you would have to have a least an acre of land, which effectively denies chickens to city dwellers. Another provision also prohibits coops within 50 feet of a home, another deal-breaker in a rowhouse neighborhood.

Ernst then found an ally in her D.C. Council member from Ward 6, Tommy Wells. He has introduced legislation that would allow residents to get a permit to keep chickens if they have the written consent of at least 80 percent of the neighboring property owners.

Wells said that when he looked into the issue, he found other cities across the country relaxing bans on keeping poultry. Typically, they allow only hens, not roosters, and the chickens are raised for their eggs, not meat. Wells said the law would also require coops to be kept clean, dry and sanitary. He has asked the city to adopt the changes administratively, at which point he would withdraw the bill.

Ernst's neighbor and fellow chicken champion, Amanda Cundiff, last week presented Councilmember David Catania (chairman of the committee on health) with a petition signed by 130 people supporting measures to allow chickens in the city. "Eggs hatch in February, and it would be nice if people could raise chickens this year," she said.

Ernst is also hopeful the measures will come into effect. Hens, in contrast to roosters, cluck quietly and don't need a male bird to lay eggs. She is looking forward to reuniting three of her hens with her daughters, but that probably won't happen until the spring, assuming the law is changed.

"I told [the farmer] that if they're still there we'll take three of them back," she said. "If not, we'll probably hatch new ones."

Wells said he has no plans to keep chickens, but for those who do, the hobby goes hand in glove with raising your own vegetables. Both practices are instructive to children and restore a sense of connection to agriculture that has been lost for most urban dwellers.

A few hens and a small vegetable plot will not stop you from buying food, but they offer a huge symbol to people who feel they have lost control of their food chain or who believe that industrial agriculture is environmentally unsustainable.

"You do see young people who are far more open to the idea of locally grown food," said Wells.

As the District comes round to this, it would be good for other urbanized jurisdictions around the Beltway to look at easing their restrictions. Most have similar setback rules that effectively deny poultry to anyone who doesn't have an uncommonly large property.

Higgins wrote about keeping chickens in Montgomery and Calvert counties, as well as in the District, in May. Read that column and view a narrated slide show on the topic at http://www.washingtonpost.com/home.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company