A group of Mount Rainier residents is ruffling some feathers in hopes of gaining support to legalize the ownership of hens in residential areas.
Prince George’s Hens, a community campaign launched by a group of county residents in 2010 to change the county zoning code to allow homeowners to own chickens, presented a petition signed by almost 120 Mount Rainier residents in support of their proposal that would allow residents to own up to six hens. The group has gotten about 850 signatures from residents across the county.
“This is something that creates a quadruple bottom-line benefit for jurisdictions,” Prince George’s Hens member Jacob Howley of Mount Rainier told the City Council on Oct. 16, explaining that hens make great pets, and would save residents money on eggs, reduce food waste and yard waste, allow droppings to be used for fertilizer, and keep away mosquitoes and other garden pests.
Common house pets, such as dogs and cats, are allowed to be kept in residential areas under zoning restrictions, but the group wants to include hens as allowable under county zoning law, Howley said. Under the group’s proposal, hens would need to be kept in a secure enclosure located at least 25 feet from a neighbor’s home, and roosters aren’t allowed, as they crow loudly in the morning and aren’t needed for hens to produce eggs.
Howley urged the City Council to write a letter of support to the County Council in support of the proposal.
The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission completed a report in September urging county officials to allow for backyard hens to be legally permitted for residents because of an increasing demand for the chickens from residents and to ensure that safety regulations were being followed.
“I think that the key thing for me is that a cat or dog properly maintained is not a nuisance,” said Mount Rainier Councilman Brent Bolin (Ward 2). “A chicken properly maintained is also not a nuisance. I personally do not see an issue with this.”
Alonzo Washington, chief of staff for County Councilman Will Campos, said the councilman, whose district includes Mount Rainier, could not comment on the proposal yet because he had not seen it. Campos supports the current county code, he said.
Some Mount Rainier officials expressed concern about the idea, citing the toll the change could take on code enforcement and concerns about chickens in general.
“We already complain that we do not have enough code enforcement to monitor the dogs, and we don’t have enough code enforcement to monitor the apartments,” Mayor Malinda Miles said. “I came up on a farm and I know what chickens do.”
Marco Colombini, a professor of biology at the University of Maryland, College Park, said if not properly taken care of, chickens could produce waste that creates fumes and bacteria that could be harmful to other pets or humans, or could cause runoff that could damage the environment. However, a small number of chickens likely will not cause large-scale environmental damage due to runoff, he said.
As long as residents clean their chicken’s waste properly, there should be no problem, he said.
“It’s the question of being a good neighbor,” Colombini said. “This is nature and this should not be a problem if it is done carefully, but that is a big if.”
Howley said a number of jurisdictions have adopted similar proposals across the country and in Maryland, including in Gaithersburg, Annapolis and Baltimore. Howley said capping the amount of hens that one can own at six was a good way to ensure much larger chicken coops do not become regular fixtures in the county. Studies looking at the jurisdictions that have allowed residents to own hens have found that there has been little to no reported increase in the amount of code enforcement activity due to legalization efforts, he said.
Lisa Holland, director of animal control for the city of Gaithersburg, said the city allows for residents to keep six hens and can have more if the enclosure for the chickens is 200 feet from a neighbor’s property. There are about seven residents that currently own chickens in the city at the moment, and only a handful of complaints are filed about them each year, she said.
“All of the residents that have chicken coops are very responsible, have taken very good care of the chickens and are aware of the neighbors’ concerns,” Holland said. “It has worked out well.”
Roopa Krithivasan of Mount Rainier said she supported the measure. She said she previously had neighbors in the city who owned chickens that she did not know were there.
“I know where every single dog was that lived on that block,” she said. “But I did not know there were hens there until they moved out.”
Mount Rainier Councilman Jimmy Tarlau said he may support the measure but wanted to get more feedback before making a decision.
“I think I’d like to see other people voice their position on it, because I know we have seen plenty of emails from people who are against it,” he said.
Mount Rainier will address the issue further at future council meetings, Miles said. Officials with the M-NCPPC are scheduled to present their report on backyard hens to the County Council at a meeting today.