Lay of the land: Montgomery County might relax restrictions on owning chickens -- Gazette.Net







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Some residents are opposed to Montgomery County’s plan to relax zoning regulations, letting more people keep chickens in their backyards.

Montgomery is comprehensively rewriting its zoning code and using the revision to change certain policies, among which are the rules regulating the raising of chickens.

As far back as the county’s first zoning code in 1928, residents could have chickens in their yards, because farming was permitted in every zone, Legislative Attorney Jeff Zyontz said.

But by the mid-1950s, the code did not expressly allow for chickens, he said.

Sometime after 1955, the county adopted its current regulations, which allow chickens in residential zones, so long as the coop is 25 feet from a lot line and 100 feet from a neighboring house, Zyontz said.

Those rules, he said, were crafted to keep fowl off small lots.

Planners and council members want to let those who live on small lots raise chickens, too.

Within the current rewrite, county planners have proposed to relax the rules for backyard chicken farming, suggesting a coop be at least 5 feet from the lot line. They also proposed allowing one hen for every 1,000 square feet of a lot, up to eight. No roosters would be allowed and yards must be fenced.

Goats also would be permitted, but no more than one goat for every 2,000 square feet of lot space.

The council’s Planning Housing and Economic Development Committee went for a compromise between current rules and the planners’ proposal, recommending coops be at least 15 feet from the lot line. The committee the planning board’s other limits.

Councilwoman Nancy Floreen, who chairs the committee, said some people did not realize until the rewrite that the county has long allowed chicken in residential zones.

“Residents always could have chickens. The only question was the location of the coop,” Floreen (D-At large) of Garrett Park said.

Some have cried foul at relaxing the regulations, even suggesting that it would precipitate a major spike in the number of hens in animal shelters, as residents give up on raising chickens in their backyards.

Others have said a 15-foot setback would force many who want to raise chickens to put the coop in the center of their yard — in direct sunlight.

Objections to smell and health concerns about animal waste also have been raised, but animal advocates and agriculture experts say most are unfounded.

Paul Shapiro, vice president of farm animal protection for The Humane Society of the United States, said chickens are intelligent, social, interesting animals that can make good companions.

But when chickens are allowed in residential areas or rules are relaxed, there can be a spike in unwanted birds going to shelters, he said.

Shapiro suggested that those interested in keeping chickens first learn what they are getting into. If they decide to go for it, they should rescue a sheltered chicken rather than ordering chicks through the mail, he said.

University of Maryland Extension Educator Chuck Schuster agreed that those considering raising chickens do their homework.

Poultry sitters are absolutely necessary if owners plan to go on vacation, as the birds should not be left to fend for themselves, Schuster said.

Movable coops that provide adequate shelter and room for the birds to roost at night and lay eggs are also essential. A movable coop prevents chickens from ranging in only one area and will help cut down on smell and degradation to yards, Schuster said.

Unfortunately, those expecting to raise chickens to get cheap eggs are mistaken, he said.

The cost of buying a proper coop, feeding and caring for chickens breaks down to about $4 to $6 for every dozen eggs the chickens will produce, he said.

Those hoping to get fresh eggs, though, can produce food for themselves.

Both Schuster and Shapiro doubted that chickens would produce more waste than dogs or cats.

“When we properly manage poultry flocks in the backyard setting, including moving the structure, there is not a manure concentration and once it rains, it is incorporated into the turf,” Schuster said. “I’m less concerned about that than I’d be about some pet waste.”

When questioned by the council, Dr. Ulder Tillman, the county’s health officer, said the greater health risk would be handling the bird, not the waste. She suggested frequent handwashing.

The full council has yet to discuss the zoning rewrite, so the rules for raising chickens could continue to evolve.