WINCHESTER — Five months after being proposed, city officials are still pecking away at a potential City Code change that would allow some Winchester residents to raise chickens in their backyards.
"I'd like to see something like this go forward, but I'm not convinced it can," City Council Vice President Kim Herbstritt said last week. "I like chickens, but I also know they can be a nuisance for our community."
The fowl-friendly ordinance amendment that was first introduced in October would allow city residents who live outside of downtown to raise up to six chickens outdoors, assuming their backyards are large enough to install pens or coops at least 25 feet from property lines and neighboring residential structures, 20 feet from streams and 10 feet from owners' homes.
Pens and coops would have to be kept clean to avoid odors, and the chickens living within could only be kept to harvest their eggs. No roosters would be allowed.
The ordinance would prevent owners from selling eggs or slaughtering chickens for meat. According to the proposal, chickens who pass away due to age, disease or predatory attack would have to be buried, composted or taken to a landfill. If a chicken dies for undetermined reasons, the owner would be responsible for reporting the death to the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Human Services prior to the animal's disposal.
A city-issued permit would be required to raise chickens, and violations of the rules could result in civil fines and a one-year permit revocation. Winchester Zoning Administrator Frank Hopkins said the ordinance would primarily be enforced by the Winchester Police Department's two part-time animal control officers.
Frederick County took up a similar resolution in October that would have allowed a limited number of backyard chickens at homes in the county's highly populated Residential Performance (RP) zoning districts. The Board of Supervisors voted 4-3 to reject the proposal in January.
In Winchester, the Planning Commission unanimously recommended approval of the city's proposed chicken ordinance in December — two months after first debating the issue — but the amendment has not been forwarded to City Council. That's because City Manager Dan Hoffman said there have been more pressing issues for officials to consider.
Despite the delays, Winchester's chicken proposal has proven too plucky to fly the coop. The Planning and Economic Development Committee reviewed the proposition on Thursday with an eye toward forwarding it to the full City Council.
The committee's discussion made it clear that not everyone in Winchester would welcome chickens in their neighborhoods.
"I'm not favorable toward chickens," Mayor and committee Chairman David Smith said bluntly. "I'm finding it very hard to see [allowing] chickens in the city."
"I had the fortunate — or unfortunate — situation of assisting my neighbor a few months ago," said committee member Herbstritt. "A [wayward] chicken was in her backyard and had made a mess on the porch. ... We were finally able to get the chicken, and law enforcement had to come out to pick it up. ... I don't know how often that would happen [if city residents were allowed to raise chickens], but it was certainly a big inconvenience to the neighbor."
"If I have a chicken come through my house, I'm not going to chase after it," Smith said with a chuckle. "I'm afraid of the things."
City Councilor Richard Bell was the only committee member who seemed amenable to the prospect of allowing chickens in Winchester.
"With a properly crafted ordinance, I don't have a problem with it," Bell said.
The committee agreed to pass along the proposed chicken ordinance to City Council for a final determination, but refused to attach a recommendation for approval or denial. Council is expected to discuss the amendment at its next work session on Feb. 9.
Attending Thursday afternoon’s Planning and Economic Development Committee meeting in Rouss City Hall were Mayor and committee Chairman David Smith and members Kim Herbstritt and Richard Bell.