Council supports urban agriculture rules

FRONT ROYAL – Town leaders gave initial support Monday for rules to allow residents to raise chickens and other animals in their yards.

Town Council voted 5-1 on first reading a motion to amend the town code pertaining to animal regulations and to enact standards for urban agriculture. The new regulations would define urban agriculture and set forth rules on keeping chickens on certain residential properties.

Councilwoman Bébhinn Egger made the motion to amend the code. An amendment to the motion that received unanimous support removed a requirement for a permit on larger lot sizes. Egger noted that keeping chickens provides numerous benefits. She added that many people in town can’t afford to buy a home so some families might benefit by cultivating their own food.

“This is really moving forward for a more sustainable way of life,” Egger said.

Councilman Bret W. Hrbek brought the idea before council months ago. Hrbek noted that the amendment essentially creates a pilot program that, after a year, allows council to end the initiative if problems arise. The initiative follows a growing trend embracing urban agriculture, Hrbek said.

Councilman Eugene Tewalt said he thought the idea was a joke when it came up several months ago. Tewalt noted that the town spent millions of dollars to upgrade its wastewater treatment plant to remove nutrients before the effluent goes to the Shenandoah River and the Chesapeake Bay. The councilman noted that runoff from chicken waste would hinder that effort. Chickens also could have a negative effect on neighboring properties, Tewalt said.

“I think we’re making a major, major mistake even considering this,” Tewalt said.

Tewalt said some people he knows who own high-valued homes also oppose the initiative.

Councilman John P. Connolly said the ordinance does require permits for backyard chickens and includes numerous conditions. Connolly voiced support for the idea.

Council heard support and opposition for the initiative during a public hearing. Susan Anderson, of Salem Avenue, asked council to approve the regulations. Anderson said her family started raising chickens about nine months ago but didn’t know then that the town prohibited such practice. Anderson said her children spend more time outside with the chickens that are kept in a pen. The area is kept clean and hasn’t prompted complaints by neighbors, Anderson said. Her husband Eric Anderson and one of their children, Nicholas, also spoke about their chickens. Eric Anderson said they recycle the waste created by the chickens.

Local businessman Mike McCool spoke against the idea and said people who want farm animals should live in the county. McCool voiced concerns about the waste and potential cost to the town to monitor such activity.

Jessica Jansen, of Cyprus Street, spoke in favor of urban agriculture. Jansen said she didn’t understand the prejudice against chickens. Urban agriculture would provide an educational tool for children to learn about where their food comes from.

Bill Sealock, of Wine Street, voiced concern about how urban agriculture might attract bears, foxes or other unwanted animals. Sealock said he would feel concerned if a chicken came into his yard.

Egger presented a list of numerous localities in Virginia and across the country that allow chickens, including Reston, Alexandria, Falls Church, Culpeper and Glen Allen. Tewalt rebutted Egger and noted that he doesn’t work for the residents of those other localities. Tewalt added that renters don’t pay taxes – property owners do.

“(Renters) don’t care what their backyards look like and I do,” Tewalt said.

Vice Mayor Hollis L. Tharpe acknowledged that he and Tewalt would be outnumbered and so he would vote with the majority in support of the ordinance.

Draft amendments require a zoning permit in order to keep livestock and a management plan endorsed by the Virginia Cooperative Extension Office or another qualified expert, organization or government agency.

Under the regulations residents of single-family, duplex or two-family homes can obtain a permit to keep up to six hens, honeybee hives and rabbits. Other residential properties, such as townhouses and apartments, could only keep animals if approved by Town Council with a special-use permit or development proffer.

The draft regulations would allow larger lots of one acre or greater to keep animals such as cows, goats, roosters, sheep and other types of livestock. Zoning permits would remain valid for one year at a time.

Also at the meeting, council:

• Approved a special-use permit requested by Martin McMahon, with Cornerstone Construction of Front Royal Inc., for the proposed conversion of the single-family dwelling at 102 W. Prospect St. into a multi-family dwelling building with two one-bedroom units and one two-bedroom unit. The property is zoned in the residential district and in the town’s historic district. Andrea White, of Lee Street, emphasized during the public hearing on the request that the residents on her block are excited to see the renovations go through but remain concerned about the project’s affect on parking along Prospect Street. White asked council if the town could post a No Parking sign on the narrow Prospect Street. McMahon said they plan to provide enough off-street parking for the property tenants. Council voted 6-0 to approve the request. At the request of Tewalt, the motion included that the town require the developer to create the off-street parking.
Voted 4-2 against a motion to amend the town’s ordinance pertaining to maintenance of weeds and debris.

• Approved an extension for the $10 million short-term loan to the Front Royal Warren County Economic Development Authority. The loan is to help the EDA develop a lot for the IT Federal project.

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