Prince William County considers allowing residents to raise fowl in rural areas

By Jennifer Buske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 26, 2010; PW01

Christina Penton uprooted her children and husband a year ago to move from Chantilly to Gainesville, escaping the hustle and bustle of suburban life for a more rural setting.

And, she said, to raise chickens.

But like some others in the community, her hopes to have the backyard birds are pinned on county supervisors, who will vote next month whether to upend an ordinance to allow people to raise chickens and other fowl in agricultural and rural areas.

"My oldest daughter is an avid equestrian, I wanted to take up beekeeping, and we all wanted to keep chickens," Penton said. "We loved that our property is surrounded by goat and horse farms instead of suburban traffic. . . . We did not realize we'd be restricted from keeping a household flock in this non-HOA community."

Prince William prohibits livestock -- cows, pigs, sheep and other animals -- and fowl on properties smaller than two acres and on those larger than two acres if there is a house on it, even if it's zoned for agriculture. Horses, however, and small animals, such as pygmy goats, are allowed.

Prince William County officials said they have been somewhat lenient with the regulations in agricultural areas unless a complaint arises, which is what happened with a few chicken owners who are pushing county officials to loosen the laws.

"It's an uphill fight," Brentsville resident and former chicken owner Vic Cole said after a Board of County Supervisors work session on this issue last week. "For months, I've been trying to pound a round peg into a square hole. . . . I have neighbors with horses, and those are legal, but not chickens? It leaves you scratching your head."

Cole, who lives on 1.68 acres, had six chickens until December, when a neighbor's dog killed two; the neighbor then complained to county officials, he said. Cole said he grew up just outside Miami, raising chickens as a kid. Wanting to relive some memories and have fresh eggs, he settled on agricultural land in Prince William, thinking he was okay.

"I had checked the county Web site and called county [officials]," who said he would be fine because his lot had A1 zoning, meaning agricultural, Cole said. "I think I found out why the chicken crossed the road: to get out of Prince William County."

On Oct. 5, county supervisors are scheduled to vote on a new ordinance that would allow for backyard chickens and other fowl. County staff members are recommending that agricultural- and suburban-area properties of two acres or larger with a house be allowed to have chickens and fowl. The planning commission's recommendation varies slightly. It would allow birds on any property in a yet-to-be-defined agricultural area, even if there's a house on it, or on any property two acres or larger in other semirural areas.

Proposed guidelines that accompany the recommendations state that structures housing fowl need to be 50 feet from the side or rear lot line and 10 feet from the house on the property.

"People buy A1 lots, no matter what the size, and expect that the agricultural zoning means agriculture," Supervisor W.S. Covington III (R-Brentsville) said, adding that he would even consider bringing down the size of regulated properties to one acre or more. "We have a lot of problems in the rural area, and there shouldn't be."

Prince William resident Lori Flanagan said the guidelines are a concern because her family keeps a chicken coop under the deck. Flanagan said her property is just about two acres and has 35 chickens, turkeys, geese, ducks, sheep and a few other animals. Flanagan was summoned to court for violating the current ordinance in 2009, but the county did not pursue the case.

"Chickens eat the snakes and the ticks," she said. "I've seen six Japanese beetles this year, thanks to the fowl on the property. We love [the chickens]; they are low maintenance, and we get fresh eggs."

Supervisor John T. Stirrup Jr. (R-Gainesville), who helped Flanagan keep her chickens, said that the commission's recommendation is "too complicated" and that he is looking for a uniform policy to allow for chickens in rural areas.

Although some support allowing chickens, county officials said they have had complaints -- 26 in fiscal 2010 -- from residents who worry about the smell, the noise from roosters and the chicken's waste getting into groundwater. Proponents say chickens produce less waste than horses. They said that this is a property rights issue and that, if neighbors can have horses and small animals, they should be able to keep their birds on agricultural land.

"I think the board sees the sense of allowing people in the rural area to have chickens," Penton said. "But if I'm prohibited from using and enjoying my two acres of land the way I want in an area I love, I'd consider moving again in a few years."

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