Current & Proposed law

Should you have the right to raise chickens as pets? Does the government decide what kind of pet you can raise? The right to raise backyard chickens is at a crossroads. You can make a difference.

What about chicks?Current law

Backyard chickens are currently legal in Montgomery County, but it’s an ambiguous situation. In 2010, Circuit Court judge Michael Mason decided that chickens can be considered pets, and therefore exempt from  Montgomery County law which requires that any accessory structures (e.g., a shed) used for housing animals or fowl in a residential area to be 100 feet from the nearest residence. “While I’ve never really thought of hens as household pets … you can have chickens as pets,” said Judge Mason.

The law is about to change. Will backyard chickens become illegal in our suburban communities? Will there be never-ending debate as to whether chickens are legitimate household pets? Or, will the county embrace, clear, reasonable rules that give citizens a choice of pets — including chickens?

The Zoning Rewrite Project

Proposed law

A new law is currently being written. The ordinance text has been changing. In summer 2013, the draft ordinance would make backyard chickens fully legal. But due to opposition to chickens, the current proposed law remains disturbingly vague.

The new law is part of a large rewriting of Montgomery zoning code. The zoning law has not been comprehensively updated since 1977. The County Planning Board has suggested changes to the law. The Council is considering those changes and the recommendations of the Council’s Planning, Housing, and Economic Development Committee.

The proposed code includes a new provision for small-scale “animal husbandry.” Once the code is approved by the county council, it becomes law. The existing Montgomery County zoning ordinance is being extensively simplified and updated, covering many facets of life from parking lots to building design. The Washington Post wrote on 8-June-2013, that “There is also a nod to the urban agriculture movement in the relaxation of rules on farm animals. Homeowners with average-sized lots would be able to keep up to eight hens, ducks or miniature goats on their property (no roosters).”

The following is the exact text of the latest version of the proposed code:

Section 3.2.11. Accessory Agricultural Uses
B. Animal Husbandry

1. Defined

Animal Husbandry means the practice of raising hens, ducks, miniature goats, rabbits, or bees.

2. Use Standards

Where Animal Husbandry is allowed as a limited use, it must satisfy the following standards:

a. Any accessory structure used to shelter hens, ducks, miniature goats, or rabbits must be set back a minimum of 25 feet from any lot line and 100 feet from a dwelling on another lot, unless the structure is used for a household pet.

b. Any accessory structure used to shelter hens, ducks, miniature goats, or rabbits must have a solid roof.

c. If hens, ducks, miniature goats, or rabbits are raised, the lot area behind the rear building line must be fenced.

d. One miniature goat may be kept for every 2,000 square feet of [land] lot area and one hen, duck, or rabbit may be kept for every 1,000 square feet of [land] lot area. A combined total of 8 animals is allowed per lot. When calculating the number of animals allowed per lot, the square footage designated for one animal cannot be used to satisfy the square footage requirement of another animal.

 e. Roosters are prohibited.

 f. In the CRN, CRT, CR, GR, NR, LSC, EOF, IL, IM, and IH zones, only bees are allowed.

Source: “59-3. Uses and Use Standards” from  Planning Board Draft: Chapter 59 from Oct  11, 2013.

What does this mean? Are chickens effectively illegal, requiring 100 feet from any house? Or will all backyard chickens be considered pets? We need to clarify what’s legal, what’s a pet, and make sure that the chicken opposition doesn’t revise the code to make backyard chickens totally illegal in the suburbs.

Conflicting aviary law

Also, there is conflicting section of the county code:

(a) An owner must not:
(8) Allow a domestic or exotic bird, including a homing pigeon, to be in an aviary within 100 feet of any structure owned or leased by another person and used for human habitation or work. This paragraph does not apply to a bird:
(A) other than a homing pigeon, inside the owner’s dwelling;
(B) in a pet shop;
(C) in an agricultural zone as defined in Chapter 59; or
(D) in a market for less than 24 hours for sale for human consumption.
Source: Sec. 5-203. Public nuisance and other violations.

The broad restriction on aviaries has been used by the county to eliminate backyard chickens in Kensington and elsewhere. The spirit of the restrictions on aviaries may be reasonable, but it should not apply to backyard chickens.

What do you think?

Do you think that’s reasonable? Should chickens be allowed? What maximum? How far from the property line? The chicken opposition wants to see this proposed law eliminated. Read the key concerns of the opposition.

You have a say in this. Contact our county council or testify and express your voice. The council needs to know the views of constituents like you.

How does this law compare with other laws nationwide? 

The proposed law is reasonable. Chickens are, perhaps surprisingly, legal in the vast majority of large cities.

As the movement toward keeping backyard chickens continues to grow, many cities are facing the decision of whether to allow residents to keep chickens and, if so, how to effectively regulate the practice. The following law review article is a survey of municipal ordinances in the top 100 most populous cities in the United States that concern keeping and raising chickens. Allowing up to 8-12 animals (4 on very small lots), with small setbacks, is reasonable for our suburban county.  The survey also identifies regulatory norms and some effective and less effective ways to regulate the keeping of chickens.

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