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‘Urban chickens’ at center of Albemarle zoning lawsuit

CHARLOTTESVILLE (AP) Alexander “A.J.” Miller bought the chickens to teach his son about sustainability. His Albemarle County neighbors complained about the sustained stench.

Now Miller is going to court to fight to keep his dozen cluckers after being ordered to get rid of them. It’s the kind of clash that’s becoming more common as the phenomenon of urban chicken-raising grows.

“This is just another great way of opting out of an industrial food system that people are really not happy about,” said Guinevere Higgins, who has raised chickens on and off for more than six years and helped found the Charlottesville League of Urban Chicken Keepers, or CLUCK, in 2008.

“It is a fundamental misunderstanding. People have this misconception that chickens are smelly and unsanitary and cause disease, but I really don’t think there is any data to back that up,” said Higgins, of Charlottesville.

How local governments respond to urban chickens varies widely. Charlottesville’s city code prohibits fighting cocks but says nothing about how many roosters or hens a resident may possess. Albemarle, however, prohibits raising chickens in the county’s more heavily populated areas.

The county Zoning Board of Appeals in September rejected Miller’s request to raise a flock of chickens at his Bennington Road home. He bought the birds in April 2010. Miller says in a lawsuit filed in county Circuit Court that Albemarle’s ordinance violates his 14th Amendment right to “life, liberty, or property.”

“I’ll tell you what, the taste of the eggs coming from your own chickens is amazing compared to the stuff you get from the store,” Miller said.

Elizabeth Purdy, of Charlottesville, who owns five chickens, said she was amazed to learn that chicken-keeping is outlawed in some parts of Albemarle.

“That is so crazy,” she said. “(Chickens) are less trouble than a dog.”

Disparity in the regulation of urban chicken-raising spreads beyond Central Virginia, said KT LaBadie, the Iowa City-based founder of urbanchickens.org. Just 13 of 25 cities LaBadie reviewed for a 2008 study specifically stated how many birds are allowed on each property. Some cities use lot size or the distance of the coop to the property line to determine the number of chickens permitted, LaBadie found.

“In many cases, this issue has two opposing sides: those citizens who want to keep chickens for egg production and those citizens who are concerned about the effects of chickens on their communities,” she wrote in her report.

Some localities regulate urban farming through permits and fees, she found. Cities also differed on enclosure requirements and policies regarding roosters, according to LaBadie’s research.

“In Charlottesville, we are incredibly lucky because we have a very forward-thinking ordinance,” Higgins said.
Some Albemarle County supervisors said they were open to discussing the county ordinance — but not to dismissing people worried about odor.

“I really don’t want the ordinance to change,” said Supervisor Rodney Thomas. “I’m not opposed to discussing it and coming to a board decision about it.”

Supervisor Christopher J. Dumler said he would support permitting chickens in residential areas — so long as there were restrictions.

“There’s a definite balancing act here,” Dumler said. “I completely understand people’s concerns, but at the same time I think this local food, know your food movement is very big. I think we should embrace that in a healthy, neighborly way.”
Efforts to reach Miller’s neighbors were unsuccessful.

Purdy said she regards her chickens as pets that happen to produce delicious eggs. She and her husband purchased chicks three years ago after she was diagnosed with epilepsy.

“These chickens have been very calming and comforting to me,” Purdy said.

For urban farmers facing objections, she said, “I can tell you how to deal with that. Put a couple of eggs over the fence to the neighbors.”

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