D.C. makes a peck of trouble for chicken owners

By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Gardening Columnist
Thursday, August 5, 2010

At the bottom of his long, narrow Capitol Hill garden, Sam Payne, 5, finds a worm to feed to Flash. Flash is a chocolate-colored bird in that awkward stage of chickenhood, somewhere between chick and hen.

Flash also has a deformed leg. Sam's sister, Maxine, 7, explains why they have to care especially for the crippled bird. "He's smaller than the other birds because he can't feed himself so well," she says. Stretch is the name of another young hen with the same malady. Three others are sound and bigger.

When I went to see them the other day, the five were housed in a fancy, light blue chicken coop and adjoining run that the children built with their parents, Bob Payne and Laura Takacs. Around the coop and extending throughout the bottom half of the garden, containers are bursting with tomatoes and other summer vegetables. A perfect closed loop is in the works here: The vegetable scraps go to the chickens, the birds will provide eggs in a few weeks, and their waste can go to build compost for the garden. The hens will also eat slugs, ticks and weeds. They earn their keep.

The children, thus, are enjoying the sort of modern, urban childhood that we have all been advocating. At a formative moment in their lives, Sam and Maxine are connecting to nature and learning a measure of self-sufficiency and environmental stewardship that will stand them, and the planet, in good stead for the rest of their lives.

Not so fast.

By the time you read this, the five chickens will have been run out of town. Mom and dad are trying to explain to the children why the coop -- and their lives -- are suddenly so empty. "The children will have to use it as a submarine," said Bob Payne, looking down on the elaborate structure.

The Paynes are not the first pet-chicken owners to run afoul of the District's animal laws, but they are among the first who thought they could comply with its strict regulations. Because of the layout of their back yard, which is 20 feet wide, 100 feet deep and adjoins two alleys, they were able to meet the rule that a coop had to be at least 50 feet from any other structure. They applied for a permit, got the nod from their neighbors and worked with the D.C. Health Department to construct and locate the coop. Abruptly, the process was frozen and the chickens declared illegal.

The department's lawyers decided that the animal regulations allowing chickens are superseded by a contradictory statute banning poultry and any other creatures not specifically allowed.

"It's the law; the Department of Health can't change that," said Dena Iverson, the department's spokeswoman. "We are just the enforcement agency."

The young hens have been sent to a farm in Virginia until their legal status can be resolved. Chicken fans are hoping the D.C. Council will change the law, but that may take weeks. It may take forever. In the District of Columbia, the wheels of government can grind slowly.

In the past few years, other major cities across the nation have moved quickly to permit backyard chickens, typically allowing a small number of hens, no roosters, and poultry for eggs only, not meat. Hens, honeybees, vegetable gardens: These are the components of an urban back-to-the-land movement that has created a cultural shift toward self-sufficiency for all sorts of feel-good and lofty reasons: controlling food security and costs, reducing our carbon footprint and, not least, returning a sense of control to what we stick in our mouths. But the District appears unmoved by such forces and is in no rush to join cities such as Baltimore, Denver, New York, San Francisco and Seattle to permit chickens. Payne says honeybees, similarly, are banished under the new ruling. He has put on hold plans to get a colony or two.

A few months ago, another Capitol Hill chicken fancier, Caryn Ernst, was encouraged by signs that the District was warming to the idea of home poultry. After authorities sent her chickens packing, she found a friend in council member Tommy Wells, who introduced a bill that would have allowed her and her young children to keep hens again. The property did not meet the set-back requirements.

Wells sent the legislation to the Committee on Health, where it has languished. The committee has a full plate over the coming months, considering such matters as how to effect the changes in federal health-care law and preserve hospital care for the poor. These are important affairs, and chickens are way back in the legislative pecking order.

Ernst helped organize a group called the D.C. Hen Coalition and hopes to meet in a few weeks with the mayor's office as part of her campaign.

"We really miss them," she said. "They were great pets."

Sam and Maxine, meanwhile, are left with the worms to find and play with. If that's allowed.

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