Pigs in Takoma Park highlight rise in suburban livestock

Mark Parisi keeps chickens and pigs at his home in Takoma Park. In suburban areas such as Montgomery County, it is not against the law to keep livestock.
By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 25, 2010

Mark Parisi, who spent his boyhood on a Connecticut farm, thought it made perfect sense to put two pigs in his suburban Takoma Park back yard and raise them to become pork chops. But not everyone in the neighborhood was thrilled to see the porkers rolling around in the dirt. Soon, someone squealed, and the authorities came calling.

But when they arrived, time and again, they found nothing amiss on Parisi's small plot of land. It turns out that pigs, chickens, goats and the occasional rooster are perfectly legal in Montgomery County and many other Washington suburbs. That puts the BlackBerry-obsessed region, partly by accident, partly by design, on the leading edge of a national "grow your own" movement that has evolved well beyond organic vegetables.

"Yes, some of my friends think I am crazy," said Parisi, who works in sales for a construction firm, uses a BlackBerry and is the proud owner of 350-pound Myrtle and the more svelte Merrill, who last weighed in at 150 pounds. Parisi said his affinity for farm animals is akin to someone who might have a passion for $300 shoes. "Everyone has their own definition of 'crazy,' " he said.

Parisi is hardly alone in raising suburban livestock. Around the Beltway, where farmland has given way to suburbia in the past four decades, the rules of the roost range.

In the Washington area, the District alone has an outright ban on farm animals, but suburbs such as Prince George's and Fairfax counties, in addition to Montgomery, allow pigs, chickens, goats and other livestock, under certain conditions.

It's clear that farm animals are dwelling amidst the swimming pools, soccer fields and shopping centers.

Across the country, many communities are loosening rules banning backyard livestock. The popularity of such small-scale farming is also evident in new, glossy magazines such as Urban Farm.

In many suburbs, there has also been an uptick in complaints about farm animals.

That's the case in Montgomery, where two years ago the zoning office received only six calls about farm animals in residential neighborhoods. In fiscal 2009, there were 11. So far, in the fiscal year that ends June 30, there have been 24 -- from chickens in Bethesda to goats in Derwood.

Most of the animal owners aren't doing anything illegal, such as creating too much ruckus or spilling manure into streams, said Susan Scala-Demby, Montgomery's zoning manager. In Montgomery, officials said that as long as no animal cruelty or nuisance is involved, it's all in how you house livestock.

Free-range pigs in Montgomery? Not a problem. Even a cow with no barn could be considered in compliance.

But if Parisi builds a pen for the pigs, he would be breaking the law, because his yard is too small to site the pen far enough from his neighbors' houses.

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