When Douglas Fairbanks Riner was born during the Depression in an Arlington house, across South Buchanan Street from where he lives now, his father kept chickens.
His family also had chickens during World War II, said Riner, when Victory Gardens and laying hens were common in yards across the nation. "The chickens kept us going during the war," he recalled.
Now Riner has half a dozen chickens clucking and pecking about his yard, and sometimes in the yard next door. The neighbors apparently don't mind the chickens or the occasional crowing of Riner's two watchful roosters, a bantam named Rochester and a leghorn called Road Runner who cockadoodles warnings whenever strangers, particularly cats or dogs, come around.
This fall, however, Riner ran "afowl" of an Arlington zoning ordinance that prohibits the keeping of livestock or poultry within 100 feet of a street or property line. Threatened with a $250-a-day criminal fine, Riner appealed to a county judge, who surprised the zoning officials by coming down on the side of the chickens. By court order, Riner is permitted to keep his chickens as pets, as long as his neighbors don't complain during the next year.
With the Riner case, the score is now chickens 2, Arlington 0. The last time the county tried to prosecute a resident for raising chickens was 10 years ago, when an Arlington Ridge Road woman was cited. The judge in that case also ruled in favor of the chickens.
Riner is not alone in the fight to keep man's feathered friends and other typically American barnyard critters around suburban homes.
In Fairfax County, a State Department economist who had been impressed by a U.S. foreign aid program he'd seen in Morocco -- supplying chickens to small farms -- has been raising chickens behind his house for 10 years. Now he faces a daily $1,000 fine if he doesn't get rid of them.
"It seemed like such a good idea," said Lawrence Rosen, "and I thought if it's good enough for the U.S. government to advocate, then I'd practice what we were preaching. Nobody said anything for 10 years until one neighbor, who doesn't live nearby, complained a few months ago." Rosen lives on Nicholson Street in the Buffalo Hills neighborhood, southwest of Seven Corners.
Rosen's case, which comes up on appeal in January before the county Board of Zoning Appeals, appears almost identical to Riner's except that Fairfax regulations are stricter than those in Arlington. Fairfax requires a minimum two-acre lot for the keeping of fowl, horses and other outdoor creatures and a 100-foot setback from property lines for sheds and barns.
The chickens on Rosen's half-acre lot may have been legal before 1979. Until then, the regulation allowed Fairfax residents to keep rabbits, hamsters, mice and guinea pigs "and other similar animals, birds or fowl." The phrase "other similar animals, birds or fowl" was removed to eliminate the possibility that chickens, ducks or geese could be considered pet fowl, county zoning administrator Philip Yates said this week.
"Before 1979, the ordinance seemed to be contradictory," he said, "because on the one hand we outlawed fowl on less than two-acre lots and then we said some fowl could be kept as pets . . . but our longstanding administration policy on chickens has been clear. We've said no thanks to chickens" on small lots.
Rosen is critical of the zoning regulation and insists his few chickens are just as much pets as rabbits and gerbils. He says his five hybrid leghorns -- he had six, but a raccoon who also does not reside legally in the neighborhood ate one last month -- also cannot be seen or heard by neighbors and are less offensive than his neighbors' barking dogs or the thousands of wild starlings that roost in nearby trees.
Rosen's nearest neighbor, Paul C. Farmer Sr., whose home is about 100 feet from Rosen's chicken coop, has written a public letter endorsing the chickens. "They add a small, but pleasant touch of the country without nuisance of any real sort," Farmer wrote.
Other neighbors have signed a petition opposing the chickens, however, although several who live nearby refused to discuss the controversy. "The neighbors see the chickens as a Trojan horse," said Rosen, "a precedent. If chickens are permitted, then what's to stop a cow or pig or horses coming in?"
Fairfax County also is going after illegal pigeons.
Chantilly resident Peter Chopek was told this summer by county zoning officials that keeping pigeons on his quarter-acre lot was illegal and he must get rid of them in 30 days.
"I've had homing pigeons all my life. My father had homing pigeons. And now I'm told I'm charged with a criminal offense that has a $1,000 fine and a year in jail," said Chopek, who enters the birds in pigeon races in which they are timed on flights as long as 600 miles.
Chopek and his attorney, John McGeehan, say the pedigreed birds, which are imported from Belgium and England, are pets. "There are many legal cases that hold that pigeons are not fowl," said McGeehan. "Even the U.S. Department of Agriculture distinguishes between fowl and pigeons."
Although Yates said "my intent is to prosecute the pigeon case," it has been up in the air for several months because the Board of Supervisors has asked Yates's department to review the regulations. However, Yates said he does not intend to propose relaxing the zoning regulations on pigeons or chickens, "and I don't think the board would tolerate a relaxation . . . because for every pigeon keeper there are several neighbors who have swimming pools and don't want bird droppings" from flocks of pigeons.
The county may decide to start civil injunction proceedings against Chopek and drop the criminal charges, Yates said, "because if we take this guy to court, we could very well get a sympathetic judge and get wiped out," just as Arlington judges have been reluctant to convict residents of criminal charges for keeping a few chickens. A civil court judge might be more sympathetic to the need to uphold county zoning ordinances, said Yates.
Chopek and McGeehan argue that homing pigeons not only are pets but cannot be criticized for the problems caused by common pigeons, which flock and roost and leave droppings around buildings and parks.
Chopek's pigeons go on exercise flights several times a week and come home to roost in a loft that is "so clean county health officials have praised it and asked him to be an unofficial county adviser on keeping birds," said McGeehan. Chopek takes his 36 birds on at least three outings a week, releasing them to fly home, where his wife "whistles them in" so they come directly to the loft without pausing even momentarily. It is a training technique designed to help their racing times, which are measured to the moment they reach their home lofts.
Most Washington-area jurisdictions have zoning regulations on the keeping of livestock, poultry and pets.
A District of Columbia resident may keep a cow or horse as long as immediate neighbors don't object and no animals are herded in the streets or tethered to fire hydrants. Such has been the law since the turn of the century, according to Ingrid Newkirk, who heads the city's animal shelter.
Arlington County allows the keeping of any poultry or livestock other than pigs, as long as the animals are penned at least 100 feet from street and property lines. To comply with the 100-foot rule, however, one probably would need at least an acre, said Ted Payne, supervisor of county inspections, and "not many lots are that large in Arlington."
Fairfax City's regulations are virtually identical to Arlington's. Alexandria requires that livestock and poultry be kept at least 200 feet from any neighbor's home (not property line), which also requires a large lot. The city requires a special permit to keep horses and, like Arlington, also prohibits the keeping of swine.