Town planners consider urban farming rules

FRONT ROYAL – Proposed rules under review would let some town residents raise chickens in their yards.

Town officials are considering adding regulations that would allow “urban agriculture” on residential properties with certain conditions. The Planning Commission discussed proposed regulations at a work session Wednesday. Town Councilman Bret Hrbek referred the matter to the commission at a previous work session.

Planning and Zoning Director Jeremy Camp and the commission spoke at length about urban agriculture and its growing popularity. Camp pointed out that more jurisdictions let residents raise chickens or other animals in their yards. Darryl Merchant, geographic information system technician with the Planning and Zoning Department, noted the increase in urban agriculture.

“I think there’s a growing trend to return to these roots,” Merchant said. “Now chicken keeping is not a modern phenomenon.”

Camp presented to the commission a proposed amendment to the zoning ordinance that defines urban agriculture as a range of food-growing practices as an accessory use. Those uses may include the raising of crops, horticulture, aquaculture, hydroponics, forestry, gardening, apiculture and the keeping of livestock and fowl. The town’s zoning ordinance prohibits agricultural uses on property not zoned for agriculture.

The Planning Commission and Town Council would need to hold public hearings on the draft ordinance before implementing the regulations. The commission agreed to hold a hearing on the matter to gather input from the community they would use to hone the proposed regulations.

Commission Chairwoman Deborah Langfitt asked if the rules would address the raising of other kinds of birds. Camp said that also could be addressed.

The proposed amendment also includes performance standards for urban agriculture. A resident would need a zoning permit to keep animals associated with urban agriculture. Applications for permits would require a management plan as reviewed by the Virginia Cooperative Extension Office. Under the ordinance as proposed, the town would allow up to three hens or three rabbits to single-family, duplex or two-family homes. The regulation would prohibit such animals from condominiums, townhouses and apartments or on property zoned commercial or industrial, excluding schools.

The proposed ordinance goes further to prohibit roosters, bees, livestock excluding rabbits, and fowl excluding hens on lots smaller than one acre in land area. Even on lots larger than an acre, such animals would be allowed only with written consent from all adjoining property owners.

Camp explained that the proposal is intended for growing purposes and private use of the goods produced and would not allow property owners to run agricultural businesses from their homes unless the house lies on a commercial lot that allows retail sales. Merchant noted that a handful of hens would not produce that many eggs and that the town is not trying to create cottage industries.

At this stage, the ordinance does not include goats as an animal allowed under urban agriculture.

The proposed ordinance does allow beekeeping on lots of one acre or larger, Camp said. Otherwise the practice would be restricted on smaller lots. Merchant warned that colonies can attract predators such as bears.

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com