Town Council debates use of urban agriculture

FRONT ROYAL – Supporters of backyard farms in town shouldn’t count their chickens before they hatch just yet.

Town Council revisited proposed regulations Tuesday that, if adopted, would let residents keep certain animals, such as chickens, on their properties. Planning Director Jeremy Camp presented the proposed amendment to council that would add an exemption under the town code section that prohibits the keeping of agricultural animals on properties other than farms of 1 acre or larger.

While several council members continue to show support for the new regulations, others voiced concerns that doing so would create more problems for the town.

The Planning Commission held two public hearings on the proposed ordinance. The commission ultimately forwarded the ordinance to council with a recommendation for approval. Council must hold a public hearing before taking action on the proposed ordinance. Vice Mayor Hollis Tharpe and Councilman Eugene Tewalt voiced opposition to the proposal.

“The whole ordinance gives me heartburn,” Tewalt said. “No. 1, I grew up on a farm and I grew up with chickens and I tell you I don’t want chickens in my yard and I don’t want to see my neighbor have chickens in their yard.

“I think we need to protect our citizens and I think by opening the door to this we’re just opening up another door for another goat or something of that nature, maybe even a pony or whatever,” Tewalt added.

Tharpe echoed Tewalt.

“When you start putting chickens in everybody’s back yards you end up with 10,000 chickens in town and I think it’ll create more of a problem,” Tharpe said. “I like the idea of it but why have something when you have to keep it caged 24-7.”

Keeping livestock such as chickens would require a zoning permit and a management plan endorsed by the Virginia Cooperative Extension Office or other qualified expert.

Under the regulations, residents of single-family, duplex and two-family homes could obtain a permit to keep up to six hens, six beehives or six rabbits but not in front or corner side yards. Animals would need to be kept in enclosed areas. Research into how other localities address urban agriculture showed these kinds of animals seem to fit in more densely populated areas, Camp explained.

The ordinance would prohibit the keeping of such animals without a special-use permit or development proffer approved by council. The regulations also would only allow larger lots of 1 acre or greater to keep animals such as cows, goats, roosters, sheep or other types of livestock with a special-use permit. Existing agricultural operations would be grandfathered in and would not require a permit, Camp said.

Additionally, the amendment would allow zoning permits for keeping livestock to last one year at a time. This would require keepers of agricultural animals to renew the permit.

“We also put that in there as a safeguard,” Camp said. “This is a relatively new experiment if it is passed by Town Council so if we decide we want to revoke this in a few years no one’s going to be grandfathered in more than a year”

The extension office and the Northern Shenandoah Valley Beekeeper’s Association provided input during the process and, according to department staff, voiced support for the changes.

Councilman Daryl Funk said he had concerns with the new permitting requirement for larger lots. Councilwoman Bébhinn Egger said she supported the ordinance but echoed Funk’s concerns about the permitting for larger lots. In response to Tharpe’s comments, Egger noted that in her research she found that people who keep chickens use a coop and an area outside that allows the animals to run.

Mayor Timothy Darr asked if the town had analyzed any additional cost the Warren County Sheriff’s Office, which handles animal control in Front Royal, might incur should the agency need to respond to calls related to urban agriculture.

Egger expressed doubt animal keepers would let their investments run wild.

“I don’t know that we can assume it would be a regular occurrence that they would create a problem all over town when people have invested in buying the chickens, buying a coop or building a coop, submitting the management plan, which is not an easy thing to do,” Egger said.

“People spend thousands on dogs and we get dog calls,” Darr said.

Funk pointed out that council can remove the ordinance after the first year. Funk said he would also want to hear from the Sheriff’s Office about the impact on animal control.

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