Arlington, Fairfax turning chicken?

Local,Virginia,Aubrey Whelan

For Walter Tejada, raising chickens, turkeys and even pigs in the backyard was just business as usual during his childhood in El Salvador, a far cry from hyperurbanized Arlington, where he now serves as the vice chairman of the county board.

But Tejada is nonetheless leading a charge on bringing "urban agriculture" to the county, which includes everything from rooftop gardens to farmers markets to, yes, chickens in the backyard.

Backyard hens are part of a trend that's seen success in urban centers like Seattle and Portland, Ore., Tejada said, and the idea is picking up steam around the region. Fairfax County officials are looking into easing restrictions on backyard hens, and Arlington County is starting a task force in March to consider urban agriculture issues, including backyard chicken coops.

It's already legal to raise chickens in the backyard in both Arlington and Fairfax. But Arlington residents must keep their poultry 100 feet from their lot line. In Fairfax, the restrictions are even more stringent -- if you have a hankering for fresh eggs every morning, you need a two-acre lot to house your hens.

Still, a group of residents in Arlington say they're prepared to push the county board to ease restrictions on backyard hens, since very few lots in the county meet current requirements. The Arlington Egg Project began an online petition asking the county to modify local laws to allow more people to keep hens in their yards, while restricting the number of chickens allowed per house and banning roosters. Petitioners say initiatives like backyard hens "help protect the natural environment by reducing dependence on industrial-scale farming."

Other residents have raised concerns that chickens would attract rats and invite infestations, Tejada said.

Any legislation or zoning changes needed to allow more people to keep chickens are a long way off, Tejada said, though he's hopeful that the task force will find ways to mitigate rat concerns and teach locals how to raise chickens safely.

And backyard chickens,Tejada says, are just part of the county's overarching initiative to encourage Arlington residents to go greener, reduce food prices and promote healthy living.

"Even though there's a lot of concrete and asphalt here, we can still develop strategies for healthy food, farmers markets and food affordability," he said. "In these urban towers of ours we can find ways to be more green."

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