By Emma Coleman
Chickens may soon be clucking in Lexington backyards. Lexington City Council will vote Thursday, Oct. 3, to pass or kill a zoning ordinance that will allow the keeping of backyard chickens in the city.
The vote comes after years of efforts by residents who believe backyard agriculture has environmental and educational benefits. If passed, the ordinance will allow residents to keep up to six chickens on their property.
According to the proposed ordinance, roosters will be prohibited, and chickens may not be slaughtered outside. All chickens must always be confined to a coop or pen, and they are not permitted to roam free in the city. Coops and pens must be confined to a side or rear yard not adjacent to a public road. Coops and pens in the historic district of the city must be approved by the Architectural Review Board.
The full list of regulations and requirements are included in the council’s meeting agenda, which is available on Lexington City’s government website.
City officials predict that few residents will move to have chickens on their property, should the ordinance be approved.
“If it passes, I would speculate that less than a handful of residents would end up having chickens, after the original rush of permittees realize that having and keeping chickens isn’t as easy as it sounds,” Council member Charles “Chuck” Smith said in an email.
Planning and Development Director Arne Glaeser agreed. “I don’t feel that we’re going to be inundated with chicken applications,” he said. “If we have five in the first year it would surprise me.”
Patrick Rhamey, Jr., a former city council member, proposed the chicken ordinance idea to council at his last meeting as a member on Dec. 6.
“It had always been on my agenda,” he said in an email, “but throughout the four years other events kept it on the back burner. But, campaign promises are campaign promises, so I got it done before I finished.”
“It was sort of his parting shot to the council,” Council member Leslie Straughan said.
The council then directed the city’s Planning Commission to draft an ordinance. The commission held a public input session on March 28. After eight months of research and drafting meetings, the commission voted unanimously on Sept. 12 to recommend the completed document to council.
The document is modeled after Staunton’s chicken-keeping ordinance, which was implemented in 2015. Straughan said that since then, Staunton has issued only 20 permits.
Several other nearby cities, including Buena Vista, Roanoke, Lynchburg, Blacksburg, Salem and Winchester, also permit residents to keep chickens on their property.
Keeping backyard chickens is becoming increasingly common across the country, too. A 2015 study revealed that 93% of 150 of the most populated American cities allow backyard poultry.
“It’s become more of a popular thing,” Glaeser said. “It’s just something that has had a renewed interest, and other jurisdictions over the last while have been going through this exact same exercise.”
Rhamey said keeping chickens has environmental and educational benefits. “It’s important to me as a matter of property rights and environmental sustainability,” he said.
“Chickens are a great way to teach children about where their food comes from and about taking personal responsibility in an environmentally friendly way,” Rhamey said. “Every major city in America has chickens, and it is uniquely absurd that we do not.”
“It’s a big deal because it’s a little city,” Smith said. “Plenty of urban areas allow chickens because it’s more of a non-issue. Little things can have big impacts in small communities.”
Planning Commission Chair Patrick “Pat” Bradley said public opinion was an important part of the drafting process.
“We solicited a great deal of public input, and it factored heavily in our discussions and in our designing of an ordinance,” he said in an email. “We were wanting, of course, to take a careful look at this in attempt to get it right, given the history of the topic.”
This is not the first time the council has attempted to draft and approve an ordinance allowing chickens in the city. The last attempt failed in 2012.
Smith said there was not enough support on the council back then. The opposition won, 4-2.
Smith said he had voted to pass the ordinance. “When I ran for council in 2009 many voters asked how I felt about chickens,” he said. “My response was if I am presented a reasonable ordinance to allow chickens, I would support it. And I did.”
Rhamey remembers public hearings from 2012, too.
“You can still find clips of the 2012 hearings on YouTube,” he said, “in which some henophobic hyperbolists spread some fairly dramatic and extreme falsehoods because they thought chickens weren’t ‘classy’ enough for Lexington.”
Bradley said that past opposition to the ordinance was a concern for the Planning Commission.
“I think the biggest challenge was the fact that this issue has come several times before, and has in the best engendered some ill will, or maybe lack of trust, among many people,” he said. “The emotions were running pretty high at the start, and it seemed that there might be some replay of the bad feelings that had occurred in the past.”
But city officials and residents said that much has changed in the last seven years. Some believe council will pass the ordinance.
“I would think it’s fair to say that this council is more progressive than the council we had in 2012,” Smith said.
Rhamey agreed. “It will pass city council easily. Many of the original opposition from seven years ago has moved on, and Lexington has grown dramatically younger and more kid friendly in that time,” he said. “The city has changed, and this is but one of the ways that the city’s laws will change to reflect that.”
But Glaeser is unsure. “It’s always hard to give odds to what is going to happen at a council meeting,” he said. “Because it was so close last time, I’m guessing it’ll be close this time.”
Still other city officials and residents have concerns about keeping chickens in the city.
Straughan said she was originally opposed to the idea. “I don’t see a need for it. You can get fresh eggs in Lexington easily and just about anywhere,” she said. “And I have concerns about it bringing in predators. We have enough critters in the city. I don’t know that we need to attract more, whether they’re attracted by the chickens, the feed or their eggs.”
But now, she said she openly supports the Planning Commission as its liaison to City Council. “I’ve already said I’m going to support the Planning Commission and I will vote in favor of it, even though originally I was against it.”
Jerry Price voiced his opinion at the public hearing in March. He is concerned that enforcing the ordinance will be difficult.
“We were told by various city officials that they cannot take the time nor make the effort to enforce the ordinances that are already on the books,” he said in an email. “Adding an additional ordinance to a list of unenforced ordinances that more than likely would not be enforced seemed irrational.”
“There’s always going to be a little bit of a learning process on how to implement,” Glaeser said. “We’ve already drafted up an application and a little fact sheet that we like to post. We’ll be able to get that out to folks when they request information about keeping chickens.”
City officials say the ordinance is well-written.
“I think Planning has done a fabulous job putting the ordinance together,” Straughan said.
“The ordinance is pretty technical,” Smith said, “much more so than the one in 2012. But less restrictive in many ways also. It’s much easier to pass restrictive ordinance and loosen it up later, then the other way around.”
“I am not sure what issues might come up once it goes into practice,” he said. “However, on the PC we have process whereby each year we look at issues, questions, concerns that have arisen over the course of the year in regards to ordinances. We then can make adjustments if need be.”
“I am glad it is over because I think it was a lot of work that we did well. I am glad to see the fruits of that work,” Bradley said. “But I did enjoy it. It showed an engaged citizenry, and, at the risk of being self-congratulatory, I think we ran a very good process.”
The City Council will meet at 8 p.m. in Harrington Waddell Elementary School’s cafeteria.
Straughan and Glaeser said they are not sure whether attendance at the public hearing will be high or low. Glaeser said he was surprised not to see more city residents at the Planning Commission’s public hearing Sept. 12.
“We had one person speak, and that was it,” Glaeser said. “We had printed out 40 or so agendas, thinking we’d have a room full again, but we didn’t. So, it’s a little hard to say where we are now as far as public interest, now that the rules have been drafted.”
“I would say we’ve talked about it so much that most people don’t care at this point,” Straughan said. “I really do feel like the majority of people are tired of discussing it.”