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Task Force Chickens Out On Loosening Rules On Backyard Hens In Arlington

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These chickens wouldn't go on the record with their thoughts on Arlington County's restrictions on backyard hens.
WAMU/Michael Pope
These chickens wouldn't go on the record with their thoughts on Arlington County's restrictions on backyard hens.

Rules regarding backyard chickens in Arlington are restrictive, and a recent county task force has failed to come to agree over whether they should be changed or not.

When asked to make a recommendation about backyard hens, the Arlington Urban Agriculture Task Force chickened out. This week members of the group failed to reach a consensus, so the task force ended up issuing three separate reports, a majority report and two minority reports.

"Trying to come to unanimity was like herding chickens," said John Vihstadt, chairman of the task force. "It wasn't in the cards. People have strong feelings."

The majority report calls for a 20-foot setback as opposed to the current restriction of 100 feet. It also calls for a majority of neighbors to consent to having chickens in the neighborhood.

One of the minority reports, on the other hand, says no chickens, no way. The other minority report is more liberal, requiring a seven-foot setback. Planning Commission members Rosemary Ciotti says a 20-foot setback would mean only wealthy people with huge yards could have chickens.

"If the purpose is truly to make food more available to everybody, particularly the most vulnerable then you have just excluded all of them," she said.

Ciotti signed on to the minority report allowing for the widest possible availability. She says the task force looked at a number of jurisdictions across the county for best practices.

"The most liberal places, they've had no neighbor consent needed, just like a dog or a cat," she said.

Or maybe even a goat. The minority report she signed off on would also allow backyard goats. But Vihstadt says chickens are not like traditional pets.

"Dogs and cats are part of the urban fabric of the county everywhere, whereas hens it's a pretty new thing," he argued.

And that's why a majority of the members on the task force believe it's important to get consent. "This is something that, you know, threatens to pit neighbor against neighbor," he said.

Ultimately, members of the Arlington County Board will have the final say when they take the issue up later this year.

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