Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Backyard chickens to be legal in Rockville July 1

Which comes first, the backyard chickens or the election? It turns out, the backyard chickens, after the Rockville City Council passed an animal ordinance last night that would permit up to 5 hens in a backyard with several restrictions.

The update of the animal ordinance, which was spearheaded by Councilmember Julie Palakovich Carr, had a number of elements that the Mayor and Council could agree upon. Those included registration of cats, and trap-neuter-release guidelines for feral cats. Councilman Tom Moore said he was "deeply impressed" by Palakovich Carr's work on the legislation.

But only one of their colleagues, Councilmember Virginia Onley, joined them to approve the new ordinance in a 3-2 vote that surprised few by the end of the discussion. Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton and Councilmember Beryl Feinberg both voted against the measure.

Newton said the backyard chicken provision in the ordinance "pits neighbor against neighbor," and ignores the evolution of once-rural Rockville into a denser, suburban residential area. She argued there must have been good reason for a previous Mayor and Council to ban backyard chickens in 2006. "What kind of city do we want to be," Newton asked, but said that given the positives of the resolution she was "disappointed to vote against this."

Feinberg was the most vocally-opposed to the chicken provision, citing a long list of unanswered questions, health and safety risks, loopholes in the proposal, and not least, resident opposition.

She argued that the costs alone were troubling, saying she was skeptical that a $25 fee could cover all of the costs to the city. "I don't think we can make any assumptions" of how many residents would seek to raise chickens, she said. Feinberg said there were many potential loopholes and problems in the resolution, which she said would be compounded by the fact that the city does not have a regulatory body to shape regulations to implement legislation.

"Votes should not be cast...without some notion on how they will be implemented, Feinberg said.

Among unanswered questions for Feinberg were:

  • a lack of guidance on maximum coop sizes, potentially leading to "Taj Mahal coops" popping up in Rockville backyards

  • the potential for a resident opposed to chickens being surrounded by 15-20 of them on adjacent home lots

  • noise - Feinberg said comparisons of chicken noises to dog barks were "disingenuous"

  • not enough documentation provided to the Mayor and Council on complaints filed about chickens in other jurisdictions that allow them

  • feather pecking and cannibalism

  • avian flu virus

  • chicken waste contaminating ground water

  • salmonella risk to humans

  • frostbite and coop fires from non-compliant heating rigs for coops in winter

  • no specificity on breeds

Overall, Feinberg deemed the resolution a "far-reaching change" with lacking controls for implementation. She also said many residents were vehemently opposed to the chicken measure.

Palakovich Carr said emails to the city on the chicken issue were running 87 in favor and 88 opposed. How many of those writing were actually citizens of Rockville, Feinberg countered. Palakovich Carr said they all were residents.

"It's about the liberty of our citizens," Moore said. All of the surrounding jurisdictions allow chickens, he noted. To Feinberg's request for more data, Moore said, "We're never going to have a all the information we could possibly have." He noted the restrictions included in the ordinance would likely disqualify a majority of backyards in the city from having chickens anyway.

"We're not turning Rockville into farmland," Onley said.

Feinberg made a last ditch effort to delay implementation of the chicken provision until January 1, 2016. That would allow time for community outreach and education about how to raise chickens safely, and smooth the transition, she argued. "If you want this, let's do it right," she concluded.

Palakovich Carr suspected the amendment was simply a stalling tactic, to allow the next Mayor and Council to undo the ordinance before it could take effect. She asked Rockville Police Chief Terry Treschuk if the city would be ready to enforce the new ordinance on July 1. Treschuk noted that all such major changes require a grace period, and a "velvet glove on an iron fist." But he expressed confidence that the city would be ready. "We're ready when you are," Treschuk told Palakovich Carr.

Feinberg's amendment failed on a 2-3 vote. Newton cast the other vote in favor of the delay.

Along with the Council's recent loosening of the city's school capacity standards, the chicken issue drew strong responses from residents on both sides. Both votes will likely resonate in the city elections this November.

One of the few declared 2015 council candidates, Brigitta Mullican, attended the meeting and spoke in opposition to the backyard chicken measure.

Photo courtesy City of Rockville

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