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The Examiner reported last week that Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells “is proposing to erase rules that prohibit fowl within 50 feet of any building ‘used for human habitation.'” Essentially, us Washingtonians would no longer be forbidden to raise chickens in our backyards.
The article says the bill “was drafted on behalf of a Capitol Hill family,” who used their small backyard to house eight hens until animal control intervened. Well’s Chief-of-Staff, Charles Allen, said that the family and a few friends approached the Councilmember to request legislation.
“This is all part of that sustainable urban life we’re trying to create,” Allen said, evoking the recent spike in the popularity of community gardening.
Caryn Ernst, owner of the original chickens, told the Examiner that “from our perspective they were pets.” She said her family of four garnered “an egg a day” from their fowl friends. “We already go through a dozen eggs a week, and we would love it if our eggs came from our own backyard.”
Allen said the hens had been used for lessons at nearby Peabody Elementary School. Students in one classroom incubated an egg, and then raised the newborn chicken.
Ernst said that a “total stranger” passed a tip to animal control, who then came, confiscated the offending chickens, and took them to a farm in Virginia. Since January 2007, the D.C. Department of Health has carried out 28 livestock pickups, according to Communications Director Dena Iverson. “Please keep in mind they were not all confiscated from owners,” she said in an email. Most were strays that were scooped up by the humane society. The rundown of captured livestock-at-large, according to Iverson: “20 chickens, 1 duck, 1 goat, 1 sheep, and 5 guinea fowl.”
Allen claimed that “several” constituents have sought out Wells to express their support for the bill, but he “wouldn’t hazard a guess” as to how many Ward 6 residents would be interesting in acquiring backyard chickens, if the law were passed.
The backyard chicken bill has its political foes, too. “We also have some neighbors saying ‘Absolutely not. I don’t want a chicken next door to me,'” Allen says. He pointed out that the legislation includes a mechanism that would bar chicken ownership at the objection of one neighbor.
“Getting a dog or cat in the city and keeping it in your backyard is pretty easy,” said Allen. “This is much more stringent than any other pet.”
It certainly seems that Councilmember Wells has his finger on the pulse of the community, communicating with neighbors and addressing their concerns in Council. But his constituents aren’t only plagued by repressive poultry zoning. Ward 6 had a 21% poverty rate during the last census, over 10 percent unemployment in July, and a violent crime rate a touch above the D.C. average.
“This bill is not his highest priority,” Charles Allen said. He insisted that the chickens only became a major time commitment when reporters began bombarding his office with phone calls.
Wells said he wants to follow the lead of other metro areas like Baltimore and Buffalo, and “be more permissive about urban hens.” The “Urban Farming Act of 2009” is currently in committee.