Kensington couple wins chicken fight
Court ruling could have larger implications for bird owners in Montgomery County
A court victory for one Kensington family could signify a bigger win for suburban chicken owners in Montgomery County who have been contending with a local law that prevents chicken coops in most backyards.
"A lot of pet chicken owners are going to breathe a sigh of relief," said Margy Stancill, a Dupont Avenue resident and the owner of 10 hens.
Montgomery County law requires any accessory structure, such as a shed, used for housing animals or fowl in a residential area to be 100 feet from the nearest residence unless it is for a household pet. Violators are subject to a $500 fine.
In November 2009, the Stancills' received a citation from the county's Department of Permitting Services stating that their backyard coop violated this policy. They appealed the citation to Montgomery County District Court, which ruled against them on Aug. 20.
The Stancills appealed that decision to county Circuit Court, where Judge Michael Mason decided in their favor on Dec. 8, ruling that the law does not specifically exclude fowl ownership, overturning the District Court ruling. Because the law is ambiguous about what a household pet is, it does not forbid chickens, Mason said.
Montgomery County Deputy Director of Animal Services Paul Hibler said there are no laws against owning chickens, and that the department treats chickens as if they are any other domestic pet, such as a dog or cat. He added, though, that any aviary a place for keeping birds must meet the same setbacks as other accessory structures.
Margy Stancill contends that the coop is exempted from the county's law because she treats the chickens as pets and does not sell their eggs. She even allows Pheobe, Sweetie, Onyx, Aster, Sunny, Summer, Rock, Nutella, Pip and Pie into her home regularly, she said.
James Savage, an attorney representing Montgomery County, said during the Dec. 8 Circuit Court hearing that the county believes chickens cannot be pets under the rule, which he added was designed specifically to disallow chicken coops in urban or suburban backyards.
Mason said during his ruling that the law is ambiguous about what defines a pet and ultimately determined that it does not exclude fowl.
"While I've never really thought of hens as household pets ... you can have chickens as pets," he said.
Jeff Zyontz, a legislative attorney with Montgomery County, said there are no pending legislative changes to the county's code concerning fowl or accessory structures.
Lonnie Luther, the owner of L&M Farm in Damascus which houses more than 70 breeds of chickens said current setback rules prohibit homeowners in suburban areas from owning chickens because the birds require a coop for shelter from predators and the weather.
"Chickens are not tree birds, they are ground birds; they need to be out scratching in the dirt," he said. "You don't need a lot of space, but you need someplace to keep them."
Luther said he sells or gives away more than 100 chickens a year, generally to Montgomery County residents. He raises them as a hobby, he said.
The City of Gaithersburg instituted a new set of laws concerning the ownership of fowl in January. It shortened the setback for pens or coops to 30 feet and limited flocks to six birds. All fowl must be registered with the city.
Rockville bans animals primarily kept on a farm.
Savage said the county will not appeal the decision. The case does not set a precedent in Montgomery County law, which was written to ban chicken coops in suburban areas, he said.
"The judge has authority on this one case that sits in front of him; it has no impact on anything else," he said.
Determining how many people own chickens in Montgomery County is difficult, though a demand exists for keeping them, said b j Altschul, a spokeswoman for the Humane Society of Montgomery County, which operates the largest animal shelter in the area.
The shelter took in 75 fowl between June 2009 and July 2010, generally from animal control or strays picked up by residents, she said. The organization was able to adopt out roughly two-thirds of the birds, Altschul said.
"The reason we get them is the same as any other animal; people move or get allergies and just can't keep them anymore," she said.
Susan Scala-Demby, a zoning manager for the Department of Permitting Services, said that her department last year received 14 complaints including one complaint about the Stancills related to the housing or ownership of chickens, compared to two complaints about dogs and six about a pig kept in Takoma Park.
Since Gaithersburg instituted its law, the city has received 11 requests to check the welfare of a fowl, resulting in city officials impounding a chicken on one occasion, said Lisa Holland, Gaithersburg's director of animal control. Animal control has also impounded a golden pheasant, which was unregistered and roaming the city.
The city has issued no citations involving violation of the new policy.
Hibler said his office receives about six to eight complaints about chickens per year, almost all of which are from the Wheaton-Silver Spring area and generally relate to noise or smell. Because these are dense suburban areas, animal control will enforce the 100-foot rule rather than a noise or odor complaint, he said.
The number of such incidents is miniscule compared to the 1,698 calls animal control responded to this year about at-large dogs canines wandering in public without a leash and 968 calls concerning barking dogs, he said.