Could the advocacy efforts of a healthy-living group lead to a reopening of the community debate on urban poultry? Or would doing so gobble up too much of the Arlington government’s time and resources?
Representatives from the Healthy Eating Active Living (HEAL) Cities & Towns Campaign for the Mid-Atlantic have been traversing the commonwealth, hoping to gain buy-in from local leaders for its agenda.
“We want to create the conditions that enable people to be healthy,” said Marisa Jones, a coordinator with HEAL, during a recent stop in front of the Vienna Town Council.
Williamsburg, Charlottesville, Lovettsville and Haymarket already are on board with the agenda, organizers said.
Many of the proposals seem benign, at least in the abstract. They range from encouraging walkability to promoting transit-oriented, mixed-use development. But then there’s the item that asks localities to adopt ordinances allowing animal husbandry or backyard poultry.
For several years, the question of urban chickens – technically, urban hens, since roosters were not part of the equation – was one of the two or three biggest hot-button topics raging in Arlington. Advocates said allowing more Arlington residents to raise the birds would, on balance, be good for sustainability, but critics countered with their own arguments why the measure should not move forward.
Technically, some owners of single-family homes already have the authority to raise chickens, but very few residential lots are big enough to meet the requirements. According to one analysis, only 15 parcels out of more than 31,000 single-family lots currently have the legal standing to raise poultry, although an unknown number of residents apparently are doing so on the sly.
Reducing setback rules from the existing 100 feet to 50 feet would have increased that number to 1,174 lots, according to a county-government estimate. Reducing it to 35 feet would have increased the number to nearly 9,600, while reducing it to 25 feet would have allowed owners of 27,000 parcels – nearly 90 percent of Arlington’s single-family footprint – to raise chickens.
The concept came to a screeching halt in late 2013, when County Manager Barbara Donnellan recommended against moving forward with any proposal without a full-scale community process. She bluntly told County Board members she didn’t have the staff resources to put the measure on the front-burner.
County Board members Chris Zimmerman and Walter Tejada fumed at the decision, but Zimmerman’s departure from the board in early 2014 and the disinterest of board chairs Jay Fisette (in 2014) and Mary Hynes (in 2015) have left the urban-chicken proposal in limbo.
The pending retirement of Tejada will pluck from the County Board its remaining chicken champion, and “any attempt to introduce poultry into the 2015 campaign would quickly lay an egg,” predicted board member John Vihstadt.
Before his election, Vihstadt served as chairman of the Urban Agriculture Task Force. He tends to agree with Donnellan that there are other priorities at the moment.
“Expanding the number of properties to host backyard chickens would require a change to the zoning code – a lengthy and uncertain process,” Vihstadt said. “We have recently undertaken a number of changes to the zoning code, and have several more pending. To add another potential change, especially when we have a couple new planning initiatives under way such as the Public Facilities Working Group and an update of the Public Spaces Master Plan, would be too much of a scramble.”
(Nearly three years of involvement with the issue clearly hasn’t dimmed the enthusiasm of many for chicken-themed plays on words.)
HEAL is an initiative of the Institute for Public Health Innovation, which has a strategic partnership with the Virginia Municipal League, of which Arlington is a member. Initial funding for the initiative was provided by the Kaiser Foundation Health Plan of the Mid-Atlantic States.
Mary Curtius, a spokesman for the Arlington County government, says HEAL has been in contact with Arlington officials, although her comments didn’t make it sound likely that the County Board would sign on formally.
“We very much support the goals” of the HEAL campaign, Curtius said.
“Arlington has been, in many ways, a leader in creating a healthy, prosperous community,” she said, ticking off efforts ranging from creating farmers’ markets to development plans in the Columbia Pike corridor.
“Although we have not formally adopted HEAL’s program, we are already successfully practicing most of it,” Curtius said.
But not urban chickens.