Montgomery County may ease restrictions on chicken owners

Local,Maryland,Kate Jacobson,Environment,Montgomery County

Montgomery County residents looking to own their own chickens soon may have an easier time keeping the feathered fowl as friends.

The county Planning Board has approved a new zoning ordinance to modernize antiquated zoning regulations. The changes include relaxed requirements for keeping chickens as pets.

The County Council is set to begin public hearings on the zoning rewrite June 11.

Chicken advocates lobbied for the loosened requirements as Planning Board officials were drafting the new zoning ordinance last year, saying it is difficult to raise pet chickens with such strict requirements.

County Legislative Attorney Jeff Zyontz said the chickens have been one of the more contentious issues during the rewrite, with the County Council receiving about the same amount of communication from pro- and anti-chicken residents.

The new rules would allow one chicken per 1,000 square feet on a lot, with no more than eight chickens total. The location of a hen house depends on the size of a lot, but for a suburban property that is an average of 6,000 square feet, a hen house must be five feet from the property line and 15 feet from a neighboring house.

Before the rewrite, coops needed to be at least 100 feet from a neighboring house and at least 25 feet from the property line.

Nearby jurisdictions, such as Arlington, also have legalized chickens at residential homes.

Planning Board Project Manager Pam Dunn said the biggest change was reclassifying what a residential chicken coop was. Before, it was classified under general farm animal regulation, which included cows and horses, but now it would be changed to make coops classified like a dog house or shed.

"We got a lot of correspondence from people that said they wanted to have, in a very modest fashion, chickens in their home," Dunn said. "It was nearly impossible in the downcounty to have a coop that fit the code."

Residents who oppose the urban chicken coops cite excess noise and unwanted predators, such as foxes, coming into neighborhoods.

"These animals have the potential to create disturbing noise and smells that would substantially reduce the quality of life for residents," said Bethesda resident Catherine Bergesen. "More importantly, there will likely be problems with predators that would be attracted and the infectious diseases that can be [contracted] by animals."

But chicken advocates say their pets are docile and will not pose a problem for their neighborhoods. Margie Stancill, a Kensington resident who has pet chickens, said they are "pets with benefits" because they provide eggs and help keep her organic garden free of bugs. "They're very sweet," she said. "I think the more and more people who are growing food and going organic will see that not only are [chickens] charming pets, but they also help with sustainable gardening."

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