Court rules in chicken owners' favor

L&M Farm owner Lonnie Luther says setback rules keep suburban residents from raising chickens.
L&M Farm owner Lonnie Luther says setback rules keep suburban residents from raising chickens. (Anthony Castellano)
By Alex Ruoff
The Gazette
Thursday, December 16, 2010

A court victory for one Kensington family could signify a bigger win for suburban chicken owners in Montgomery County who have been contending with a local law that prevents chicken coops in most back yards.

"A lot of pet-chicken owners are going to breathe a sigh of relief," said Margy Stancill, a Dupont Avenue resident and owner of 10 hens.

Montgomery law requires any accessory structure, such as a shed, used for housing animals or fowl in a residential area to be 100 feet from the nearest residence, unless it is for a household pet. Violators are subject to a $500 fine.

Last November, the Stancills received a citation from the county's Department of Permitting Services stating that their backyard coop violated the policy. They appealed the citation to Montgomery County District Court, which ruled against them Aug. 20.

The Stancills appealed that decision to county Circuit Court, where Judge Michael Mason decided in their favor Dec. 8, ruling that the law does not specifically exclude fowl ownership and overturning the District Court ruling. Because the law is ambiguous about what a household pet is, it does not forbid chickens, Mason said.

Deputy Director of Animal Services Paul Hibler said there are no laws against owning chickens, and the department treats chickens as domestic pets. He added, though, that any aviary - a place for keeping birds - must meet the same setback rules as other accessory structures.

Margy Stancill contends that the coop is exempted from the county's law because she treats the chickens as pets and does not sell their eggs. She even allows Pheobe, Sweetie, Onyx, Aster, Sunny, Summer, Rock, Nutella, Pip and Pie into her home regularly, she said.

James Savage, an attorney representing Montgomery, said during the Dec. 8 Circuit Court hearing that the county says chickens cannot be pets under the rule, which he added was designed specifically to disallow chicken coops in urban or suburban back yards.

Mason said during his ruling that the law is ambiguous about what defines a pet, and he ultimately determined that it does not exclude fowl.

"While I've never really thought of hens as household pets . . . you can have chickens as pets," he said.

Jeff Zyontz, a legislative attorney with the county, said there are no pending legislative changes to the county's code concerning fowl or accessory structures.

Lonnie Luther, owner of L&M Farm in Damascus, which houses more than 70 breeds of chickens, said current setback rules prohibit homeowners in suburban areas from owning chickens because the birds require a coop for shelter from predators and the weather.

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