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9/23/2009
Councilman Weiner will not support the current ill conceived 'backyard chicken coops on half acre parcels' proposal. Broader public discussion & Land Use Dept review needed. - News Journal

Councilman Weiner will not support the current ill conceived 'backyard chicken coops on half acre parcels' proposal. Broader public discussion & Land Use Dept review needed. -  News Journal

Councilmen Robert Weiner said he's not willing to support the measure unless there is a broader public discussion for residents to offer input.

"This decision doesn't need to be made tonight or in the next few weeks," he said.

Backyard bounty ruffles some feathers
Suburban chickens create a quandary in NCCo
BY ANGIE BASIOUNY • THE NEWS JOURNAL • SEPTEMBER 23, 2009


Kathleen Hildebrand just wanted fresh eggs.

But the four chickens she keeps in a coop behind her Hockessin-area home has touched off a debate about whether New Castle County should change its land-use laws to allow the backyard birds.

Her supporters say a revision is needed to accommodate "urban farming," a growing trend in which city dwellers and suburbanites grow their own food to ensure its healthfulness, live greener and cope with a dour economy. Opponents contend subdivisions were made for soccer moms, not chickens, and permitting the fowl in residential areas will lead to excessive noise, waste and other nuisances.

New Castle County is among dozens of local governments  nationwide dealing with the intersection of lifestyle and land use as a recession-fueled interest in urban farming collides with strict laws originally drafted to keep neighborhoods clean and tidy.

Urban areas, including Baltimore, Los Angeles and Cleveland, recently have allowed residents to keep a limited number of chickens on their properties. But similar measures have failed in other cities, such as Nashville, Tenn., where earlier this month a bill that would have accommodated the animals under certain conditions was voted down.

"I get a call a day on this issue," said Brigid McCrea, a Delaware State University assistant professor and a national expert on small-flock poultry. "I get calls from Canada. I get calls from in state and out of state. It is a trend that is going to continue."

Whether it's suburbanites keeping a few cluckers in the backyard or city residents tending rooftop vegetable gardens, urban farming is gaining appeal, McCrea said, because it gives people a little control in a world where fears about the food supply are on the rise. Even
First Lady Michelle Obama  is getting in on urban farming, planting an organic vegetable garden at the White House to tout the benefits of healthier eating.

"People want to have fresh eggs and something a little more independent that what they get at the grocery store," McCrea said. "It's also a green movement-slash-independence movement. You know where your food is coming from and you can control the way the animal is treated."

In Sussex County, unincorporated residential areas are also zoned for agricultural use, so farm animals are permitted with some limitations. Kent County residents can keep farm animals on parcels of 10 acres or more.

New Castle County, the densest of Delaware's three counties, prohibits farm animals on any residentially zoned property less than an acre. The long list of banned animals includes cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, ducks, donkeys, raccoons, peacocks, chickens and llamas.

Councilman William Tansey, who represents Hildebrand, is proposing a change to permit up to four chickens on residential land that is a half-acre to one acre. The proposal comes with a few caveats: No roosters, the hens can be raised only for eggs and the coop must have a solid roof and be at least 3 feet from adjoining property.

Tansey floated the idea earlier this month then tabled it after several council members disagreed, saying farm animals simply do not belong in neighborhoods. They also voiced concern that the legislation benefits a single constituent and sets a precedent for more residents to ask for exceptions.

"This is not going to end with chickens," Council President Paul Clark said. "It opens up Pandora's box and I don't know that we have all the things to get it under control. We can't even handle dog control -- the state dumped it on us."

The elected leaders have asked the Department of Land Use to research the subject and report back on the pros, cons and progress of urban farming in other places before a vote is cast. David Culver, general manager for Land Use, has cautioned that the county needs to take a holistic approach to regulations or risk ending up with patchwork laws that are difficult to enforce.

Tansey was a little exasperated as he made his argument for the second time last week.
"We're talking about chickens, chickens, chickens," he said to fellow council members. "This is not about cows or horses. This is about chickens. How can you argue about farm animals comprehensively?"

Councilmen Robert Weiner said he's not willing to support the measure unless there is a broader public discussion for residents to offer input.

"This decision doesn't need to be made tonight or in the next few weeks," he said.
The controversy has thrust Hildebrand into the spotlight, which she never expected. She has kept chickens for about 3 1/2 years, sharing the fresh eggs with her neighbors in the community of Quaker Lea. It wasn't until this June, when a neighbor turned her into code enforcement for her crowing rooster, that she learned she was not following the law.

For Hildebrand, who suffers from arthritis and digestive problems, fresh eggs are a part of a sustainable lifestyle that includes being a member of an Amish food cooperative, growing a vegetable garden and composting the litter from her chickens.

"You pick your battles, and you do the best you can," she said about trying to live healthier. "I see backyard chickens as the quick, smart addition to the recession  garden. It's a companion."

'Enough to make them happy'

Hildebrand's chicken coop, built by her husband, Ron, is clean and inconspicuous, tucked into the back corner of her yard. Decorated with a few chicken-themed items, the coop has a pen shaded by a tree and a hut for the chickens to roost. Hildebrand gave away the rooster after being cited by code enforcement for the violation, but her four hens remain.

Hildebrand doesn't consider the hens pets -- they don't have names -- although she spoils "her girls" with high-grade organic feed and fresh watermelons and tomatoes from her garden.
"This little bit of space is enough to make them happy," she said as the hens run out to greet her, clucking softly.

Hildebrand said she's learned a lot about keeping chickens, even enrolling in McCrea's "Way Cool Chicken School" workshop last year. She's happy that council is at least talking about urban farming because she believes it's catching on as more people look for creative ways to live better in a bad economy.

"I believe in my heart that everybody is going to want to have chickens in their backyards next to their tomatoes and green beans," she said. "There may be frontyard flocks, you know."
Hildebrand received some unexpected support from strangers who read a News Journal story about her push for a change in the law and came to the council meeting.

Brandywine Hundred resident Richard Koehler encouraged elected leaders not to spend "forever" studying the issue.

"It's reasonable. It's proportionated. It's not going crazy," he said. "I would ask the council members to keep an open mind."

Tod Baseden, who lives on Grubb Road, said he was raised in Britain in a time when the government there encouraged people to keep chickens. It's a sustainable way to live because the animals eat plant-based food scraps, such as potato peels, that would otherwise be thrown away.

"There is a warm feeling about chickens that there isn't with ducks," Baseden said to council members. "I think the hostility you imagined is not what it is."

McCrea said she understands the county's hesitation and thinks its prudent for both officials and residents to learn as much as they can about urban farming. She's encouraging anyone interested in raising chickens for eggs to do research with experts beyond the feed store, pick up a book on the subject -- there's a "Raising Chickens for Dummies" -- and call her.

"Delaware is my priority," she said. "I call the Delaware people back first."

Contact Angie Basiouny at 324-2796 or abasiouny@delawareonline.com

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