WINCHESTER — City youth Isabella Stocco told Winchester City Council last week that she believes everyone should have the experience of keeping laying hens on their property.
But current city ordinances state that only those with more than 2 acres can do so.
Zoning Administrator Frank Hopkins said that means owning chickens within city limits is “effectively not available to very many residents.”
But the city is exploring whether to revise the ordinance.
During its work session Tuesday night, City Council discussed potential changes to its ordinances that governs animals, fowl and livestock. Council voted 5-4 to further those discussions.
“One of the benefits of housing chickens is the ability to observe how a very common ingredient used in kitchens for baking and cooking is produced,” Stocco told the council during during the public comments portion of Tuesday’s meeting. “Other cities in Virginia currently allow chickens. I would love to see Winchester join the list.”
Possible changes to the ordinance could include allowing those with single-family residences to house up to six chickens on their property, but no roosters. There would need to be 4 square feet of space per chicken, sanitary conditions must be maintained and there could be no commercial sales of eggs or poultry. Slaughtering of chickens would not be allowed.
Those interested in keeping chickens would need to submit a sketch showing the area where the chickens would be housed and the type and size of pens. The sketch would also need to show all dimensions and setbacks.
Those updates, among others, are not official and were just presented to council by Hopkins as possible changes.
Many councilors said they agreed with much of the information presented by Hopkins during the work session, but they wanted to know more.
Evan Clark, council vice president and councilor for the Second Ward, said he supported the ordinance moving forward and noted that about 30 or 40 cities in Virginia have changed statutes on the topic in the last five or 10 years with “great success,” including Berryville and Harrisonburg.
The adopted code in Berryville, which came in 2018, allows laying hens on residentially-zoned parcels larger than two-tenths of an acre. As with most ordinances in other localities, only laying hens — grown female chickens kept for their eggs — are allowed in Berryville.
Third Ward Councilor Kim Herbstritt said she supported the ordinance change for Winchester, but she was interested in learning more about free-range options.
“This is designed to have them at least at a minimum space and then to have that fenced in so they’re contained in that space,” Hopkins said in response. “How large you make your fence to contain them in a coop area, there’s only a minimum specified here. I will say from a practical standpoint of someone who’s enforced something like this before, you do certainly get calls where chickens are running loose. So, that was the interest in having some sort of penning of them.”
Third Ward Councilor Corey Sullivan, Fourth Ward Councilor John Willingham and Fourth Ward Councilor Judy McKiernan said they wanted more information on the topic, including what kinds of issues could arise, what issues other localities have experienced and suggested more studies be done before the next discussion.
“There’s really no doubt that 95, 97 or 98% of people who decided to get a chicken or chickens could keep it and do a good job,” Sullivan said. “But the problem we have from a local government standpoint is the 2 or 3% of people that can’t, and what do we do in those situations and what is the plan and how much stress is that going to put on an already stressed Animal Control office.”
A timetable for further discussion hasn’t been set, but Willingham suggested a six-month or yearlong review of some of the changes before adoption of any changes.
Councilors Clark, Herbstritt, Willingham, Veach and McKiernan were the aye votes. Councilors Bill Wiley, John Hill and Sullivan and Mayor John David Smith were the nay votes.