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Chickens Move Forward in Herndon

Chickens pass the first hurdle with the Town of Herndon.

The Herndon Town Council voted 6-1 to allow a proposal allowing residents to keep up to four chickens to move forward for study. (Photo: Jennifer van der Kleut)
The Herndon Town Council voted 6-1 to allow a proposal allowing residents to keep up to four chickens to move forward for study. (Photo: Jennifer van der Kleut)
Correction, Jan. 15, 11:30 a.m.: The vote was 6-1 with Councilmember Dave Kirby the sole dissenter.

The Herndon Town Council voted 6-1 Tuesday night to allow an initiating resolution exploring the idea of allowing residents to keep up to four chickens or waterfowl as pets in their backyards to move forward to the Planning Commission for study.

In 2003, the Town Council voted to allow one chicken or waterfowl, which remains the current law.

The proposed zoning ordinance text amendment (ZOTA) will now be studied and researched by the Planning Commission members, who will then make an official recommendation to the Town Council to either approve or disapprove. The Council will hear the recommendation from the Planning Commission at a future date, and hold a public hearing to gather feedback from citizens before their final vote.

The proposed ZOTA as it stands currently includes the following guidelines:

  • Residents on lots of 10,000 square feet or more would be allowed to keep up to four female chickens or waterfowl (such as a pet duck).
  • Selling of any dairy products such as eggs would be prohibited onsite, but allowed off-site.
  • Any enclosed or accessory structure (such as a coop or cage) cannot be located closer than 10 feet from any property line.
  • The animals can only be kept in the rear yard of the home, which must have a fence to keep the fowl in. The fence must meet standards and be at least six feet high. No structures such as coops or cages that are taller than 3 feet can be located closer than 5 feet from the fence.
  • Any waste from the animals must be handled properly "so as not to create odor, attract vermin or create a nuisance to residents or occupants of surrounding properties."

As a zoning ordinance, the right to keep the animals would be subject to the resident obtaining a permit, and inspections can be conducted to ensure compliance.

Councilmember Dave Kirby voted against allowing the proposal to move forward.

"It's no surprise I'm adamantly opposed to chickens in the Town of Herndon," Kirby said. "I think a 10,000-square-foot lot is much, much, too small."

Kirby pointed out that Fairfax County law requires a minimum of two acres, and suggested that the residents who are asking for this ZOTA might want to find space in the county if they wish to keep several chickens or other livestock animals.

Councilmember Charlie Waddell said he was concerned about the animals' welfare.

"My initial reaction is that livestock in an urban area is inappropriate," he said, explaining that he also felt a lot of that size was too small, and keeping livestock in such an enclosed space is "tantamount to cruelty to animals."

Mayor Merkel and the other councilmembers—many of whom voted against the idea of keeping miniature goats as pets just last month—said that, while many of them were already leaning toward voting against this proposed ZOTA and had serious concerns, they were in favor of at least allowing the Planning Commission to study the idea.

Vice Mayor Connie Hutchison said one of her main concerns was over the inclusion of the word "waterfowl" in the ZOTA, which could include animals such as ducks, geese or swans, since the guidelines explicitly require the animals to be contained and not wander freely.

"It's pretty impossible to contain waterfowl since they can fly," she pointed out.

Town Attorney Richard Kaufman said he would make a note asking the Planning Commission to explore that concern, and encouraged the Council to allow it to move forward for further study anyway.

Councilmember Melissa Jonas said many residents who had written in to or spoken before the Council asking them to explore the idea convinced her to at least move it forward.

"I think we owe it to their interests to send it to the Planning Commission," she said.

Councilmember Grace Han Wolf echoed Jonas, adding that her initial feeling is to deny allowing chickens, but saying she agreed that the Council owed it to the large number of residents in favor to send it on and vet the research.

Wolf did express concerns over chickens in backyards bothering neighbors, and over the fact that no local veterinarians within a 45-minute drive will treat chickens because they are considered livestock.

Mayor Merkel said one of her biggest concerns was over the number of staff hours it would take the Town to inspect each home applying for a permit to have chickens, if the ZOTA passed.

"I would much rather our Town staff be working on other important issues such as the development of our downtown, or planning for our Metro station, or our streetscapes, rather than on chickens," she said.

Councilmember Sheila Olem was the one councilmember who appeared staunchly in favor of chickens.

"Chickens were not meant to be alone," she said, meaning she favored the idea of increasing the number of allowed chickens from the current one, to the proposed four, pointing out that chickens are "social" animals meant to be in flocks.

In the end, Kirby was the sole councilmember who voted against moving the proposal forward, and Mayor Merkel, Wolf, Waddell, Hutchison, Olem and Jonas voted in favor of sending it to the Planning Commission.

What do you think of the Town Council's decision to allow the proposal to move forward for study? Tell us in the comments.


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Jennifer van der Kleut (Editor) January 15, 2014 at 07:21 PM
To clarify: The Council is exploring two options: 1) Allowing the chickens only by "special exception," which would mean families wanting to keep chickens would first be subject to an inspection of their home/yard; or 2) Allowing the chickens by permit which would mean no initial inspection is required, but that Town staff would have the right to inspect at any time, particularly if there are complaints. Thank you to Mayor Merkel for helping to clarify!
Patton Adams January 16, 2014 at 08:38 AM
None of those quoted in this article who opposed the idea of allowing backyard chickens -- particularly Kirby, Waddell, and Wolf -- seemed able to cite any authoritative reason for their position. *Why* does Kirby think 10,000 square feet is too small? *Why* does Waddell think poultry in an urban area is inappropriate? Does he realize that most chickens raised for produce are kept in spaces much smaller than proposed, and that backyard farming is much more humane than industrial farming? And Wolf's statement suggests that she's just motivated by a "feeling." Decisions like this can affect people's ability to raise healthy food and save money. Civic leaders really should be more deliberate about their decisions than to act on the basis of their personal feelings or imagined expertise on a subject. Opening the issue for further study is the right thing to do. Fairfax County should note the results of this study as well; 2 acres is too large a minimum threshold and not practical in a mostly R3-zoned jurisdiction.
Carlin Anderson January 16, 2014 at 09:25 AM
If you would like to become involved with the group working to bring backyard hens to Herndon, please join the Hens for Herndon Facebook group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/228810803965302/
James McDonald January 16, 2014 at 03:59 PM
Why did the chicken cross Elden?
Ruth January 17, 2014 at 09:55 AM
This is why having chickens in a suburban backyard is inappropriate. In order to get eggs you need a rooster. That rooster will not only be up and crowing at dawn, but so will all the neighbors who have to listen to the rooster. Having lived Germany on the economy for several years I can tell you first hand just how noisy that rooster is going to be. I can also tell you first hand how filthy and dirty chickens are. I can also tell you first hand that on a number of occasions the local health department had to come in and euthanize chickens due to disease. Does Herndon even have a health department? Think of your property values. How many potential home buyers would walk away from purchasing a home next-door to chickens? Most of them!
Jennifer van der Kleut (Editor) January 17, 2014 at 10:11 AM
Ruth - I believe the Council's idea is that roosters will not be allowed, only hens.
Ruth January 17, 2014 at 11:55 AM
Jennifer, I watched the council proceedings and what I heard was "fresh eggs". No Roosters. No eggs. When compared to the filth and disease the roosters seem to be the least of the problem.
Patton Adams January 17, 2014 at 12:15 PM
Ruth, I don't know if you have ever owned chickens, but hens do not need a rooster to lay eggs. In fact, unfertilized eggs are the ones that most people prefer to eat. I doubly think you have never owned chickens before, because they are not "filthy" or disease-ridden if raised correctly. Chickens acquire infections when raised in dense populations, as American chicken farms often do. Backyard chickens are quite the opposite. I do hope the good people of Herndon (and hopefully, ultimately Fairfax County) are able to consider this issue in a more informed way.
Ruth January 17, 2014 at 12:45 PM
Please re read my post. I lived for several years in a town where everyone owned chickens. Not me. Yes, they are filthy. Not only that, but they have a tendency to escape, and then you have the problem of feral chickens which become even more problematic. Have you ever vacationed on any of the Hawaiian Islands? My suggestion: Put this on the ballot in the next town election, and let's see what the majority of town residents would want. Does that seem fair?
Patton Adams January 17, 2014 at 02:18 PM
Ruth I read your post carefully enough the first time. Your particular experience in Germany may have little bearing on what is being proposed in Herndon. No roosters, for example, and I have no idea how many chickens your neighbors owned per household. I think you are envisioning a chicken-infested dystopia in Northern Virginia when in reality, local ordinances reasonably written can permit ordinary households to raise chickens for their own consumption while also avoiding potential problems that might emerge when people don't raise them correctly. Your reaction really does seem to be knee-jerk, based on your experience in Germany, and I think you need to consider other perspectives on this issue. I lived in Hawaii for five years and it was a pleasant place to live.
Ruth January 17, 2014 at 04:02 PM
Patton, right now the Hawaiian government is attempting to figure out what to do with all the feral chickens. They are considered pests and now are on even Oahu. Yes, I have spent a lot of time there as I have family there. I think you are in the minority on the chicken issue. Perhaps the Town would be better served to put out a survey to see just how many Herndon residents want to have chickens accepted as pets or raised in suburban backyards. Chickens are a nuisance and filthy no matter what picture you try to paint, and as vigilant as you may be chickens escape. I see no difference with the chicken issue than the goat issue and hope the town has the good sense to ban the keeping of chickens within the town limits just as they did the goats.
William Campenni January 18, 2014 at 12:15 PM
Based on past experiences in Herndon, if we allow chickens here to roost, what will stop the Virginia New Majority and the SEIU from registering them to vote?
Kathe Barsotti January 27, 2014 at 08:43 AM
The proposed ordinance only permits hens, not roosters. Therefore, feral chickens in Herndon is an impossibility because you need both genders to support a feral population of anything. In addition, the local fauna of foxes, hawks, and raccoons that have been here for years, in addition to neighborhood dogs, cats and the glut of cars, would quickly dispatch any escaped chickens. The proposed ordinance is only increasing the one pet hen allowed to four. This is hardly going to make Herndon overrun with chickens. I'm sure the families who want chickens as pets will go out of their way to protect and care for their chickens just like any responsible pet owner would.
James McDonald January 28, 2014 at 09:01 PM
Why did the chicken cross Elden?

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