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Group to pressure Arlington County to allow backyard hens

Cathleen Drew’s grandfather raised chickens in the back yard of his Penrose home in the 1920s. Now Drew lives in his house and wants the opportunity to do the same thing.

Drew said she wants to avoid pesticides and expensive organic food, so she has her own vegetable garden. If she had a few chickens in her back yard, she could get eggs.

“I care about what goes into my family and me,” said Drew, who said she loves the idea of being able to show her children where food comes from.

Drew is a member of the Arlington Egg Project, a fledgling group of residents who want the county to change its zoning regulations to allow backyard hens. The group met last week at the Fairlington Community Center to learn more about raising hens and county regulations.

“This is not industrialized chicken raising,” said Karla Hagan, who thinks the egg project would be a great learning experience for children.

Urban agriculture has become part of the sustainability movement. Backyard chickens are allowed in cities such as San Francisco, Chicago and Detroit.

Fairfax County allows 32 chickens within one acre. Prince William County recently adopted regulations that allow chickens to be raised in more rural parts of the county and in 10-acre lots with a permit. The District discussed the issue last year but has not taken any action.

Arlington County zoning laws require chickens and their enclosed coops to be kept 100 feet away from lot lines.

“As a practical matter, in order to give your chickens room to graze, you could get away with a half-acre, but a half-acre is 200 feet wide and 100 feet deep, so you need an acre,” said Melinda Artman, who works for Arlington’s zoning department.

Agriculture uses are allowed throughout the county, but to raise hens, the county would need to change the zoning laws to limit the amount of hens and to shrink the coop sizes required to raise them, Artman said.

The county zoning staff is updating all of the zoning regulations. The soonest that a new chicken ordinance could go on the books would be in a year after the County Board votes on the changes, she said. Chris Zimmerman (D), Arlington County Board chairman, has asked the staff to review the regulations relating to backyard hens.

“Chickens are very effective for pest control and insect control, and guano is a really effective and concentrated form of fertilizer,” said Artman, whose father is a chicken farmer in New York.

Some neighbors have yet to be convinced.

“One small outbreak could cause havoc,” said Sherry Fountain, a South Arlington resident who works in a hospital.

Fountain is concerned about enforcement and said she cannot be anywhere near chickens because it creates a safety hazard for her job.

“You are operating on a lot of faith,” Fountain told the group at a recent meeting in Fairlington. “There are a lot of irresponsible people as well.”

Arlington Egg Project members said they plan to conduct research and outreach efforts to educate the public. They said they were interested in a permit process and strict rules to raise the animals properly. No roosters would be allowed. Violators would face stiff fines if caught, the group proposed.

Artman has the ability to fine someone up to $5,000 after four violations. When it comes to livestock, Arlington follows Virginia law, which protects noise, odor and farm-related activity from legal complaints, she said.

If the group wanted to change that and draw up rules for raising the chickens, it would have to lobby state legislators, she said.

“It is a great way to have local food, and chickens are smart, fun pets, too. This isn’t the most radical idea in the world,” said Rob Krupicka (D), an Alexandria City Council member who supports changing the ordinance in Alexandria.

Coops in Alexandria must be 200 feet from property lines. There are several backyard hen supporters in Alexandria but no movement within the city yet, Krupicka said. “We need to hear more from the citizens,” he said.

The Arlington Egg Project is hosting a meeting at 7 p.m. June 2 at the Fairlington Community Center. For more information, e-mail


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