Bird-lovers defend their feathered friends
The Mittelstadt family's four baby chickens arrived Easter Monday, each of them plucked from Mypetchicken.com's vast chicken catalogue.
After a year in the coop the Mittelstadt's built in their Gaithersburg backyard feasting on grubs and mosquitoes, and yielding a bounty of organic compost and scores of fresh eggs the hens have become every bit as much pets as the family dogs.
But for every morning that Daisy, Daffodil, Crocus and Violet greet the Mittelstadts with a cluck and a coo, they ruffle feathers at the McClure house next door.
The result: complaints, letters, inspections, even a citation and repeal until the Mittelstadts and McClures landed in a City Hall hearing Monday night on Gaithersburg's first-ever push to ban domestic fowl.
Although the Mittelstadt-McClure squabble helped prompt the possible reforms, city officials have had little quarrel with Gaithersburg's three bona fide chicken coops. More and more, animal control officers are finding chickens on balconies, in laundry rooms and basements, roaming free in backyards or fettered by one leg, said Lisa Holland, Gaithersburg's animal control director.
"And we find them running at large," she said. "We don't know where they come from."
If the ban passes, the city's list of prohibited animals will include chickens, turkeys, pheasant, quails, guineas, geese, ducks, pigeons, peacocks, ostriches, emus and "other similar feathered animals" as well as llamas, alpacas, goats and "any other hoofed animal or miniatures of such animals."
Owners could keep critters they have, but would have to register them with the city.
A dozen chicken owners and 4H poultry participants warned city leaders that the mere thought of an anti-avian amendment to the city's fowl-friendly charter flies in the face of Gaithersburg's history as the seat of county agriculture.
They also touted the benefits of environmental stewardship and sustainable suburban living.
When done right, caring for chickens brings owners into a "perfect cycle," said Jill Mittelstadt.
"As far as the green' movement, you couldn't ask for a better lesson," she said.
Detractors pecked away at the appeal by pointing to owners who don't do it right which wears down property values and raises the specter of bird-borne illness.
Scott McClure rued the many friend and family visits spoiled by the birds next door.
"It puts a whole different spin on it when it's right next door to you," he told the council. "... There's nothing wrong with a farm, and chickens are good animals when you eat them. But I think we need to have them on yards with large acreages. ... You might be fine when it's across the street and down the street, but when it's right there, you can't get away from it."
And when it comes time to sell a home with chickens nearby, perception often matters more for would-be buyers, real estate agents said.
Real estate agent Elizabeth Hitt has sold two homes with chickens next door, and has no doubt they drag down property values. One property lingered unsold in a seller's market for nearly six months, Hitt told the council, finally selling for 20 percent less than similar homes nearby.
Hitt also mentioned the perception that fowl spread disease, but Tami Holmes, a registered nurse said those claims don't fly. Holmes started a coop at her Gaithersburg home two years ago only after extensive research.
"I've had a lot of people that just don't want them next door," Hitt said. "And it probably is because of the lack of knowledge of how chickens can be great. The problem is people just don't want them next door."
But not everyone. Six months after Sarah and Daniel McMath moved to their James Street house, they had nary a neighborly tie, Sarah told the City Council until "we just happened to see the crazy chicken lady" living next-door.
Backyard parties with Buffy, Lola and Phoenix welcomed the newcomers.
"It became almost a social focal point and allowed us to get to know each other and really build a community," McMath told the council. "I actually know my neighbors' names now, which quite frankly wouldn't have happened."
Montgomery County requires chickens to be at least 100 feet from the nearest neighbor's dwelling.
Housed livestock are welcome in Rockville city limits for certain purposes. Maryland cities that bar fowl include College Park and Pocomoke City, according to the Maryland Municipal League.
In Gaithersburg, pens must be at least 30 feet from a neighbor's home and five feet from the property line. Crowing roosters must be housed more than 200 feet from the nearest home, as must flocks of more than six birds.
Violations can fetch a $100 public-nuisance citation; fines for cruelty start at $250.
Residents have until 5 p.m. March 25 to comment ahead of the mayor and council's discussion next month.
Under the new ordinance, domestic fowl already living in the city would have to be registered with animal control within 30 days. If an owner fails to comply, the bird could be permanently removed.
The ordinance would not apply to animals housed for a fair or "any other commercial or non-profit variety show featuring animal acts for entertainment."