The Urban Coop
Richmonders fight for the right to raise chickens.
Issue: May 2011
Staff photo

Sometimes it’s hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys.

Take Andi and James, for instance. She has a musical laugh; he has kind eyes. The couple shares a passion for folk music. They keep the front yard of their Southside Richmond house neat.

But make no mistake: These two are outlaws. Repeat offenders. Willing to live dangerously for the thrill of it.

And the eggs. Don’t forget the eggs.

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Don’t run afoul with fowl

Their shared offense is foul or, more accurately, fowl. Andi and James own chickens. The birds are hidden in their wooded back yard at the end of a narrow lane flanked by huge trees. In the eyes of the law, they’re criminals, which is why they’ve asked that their real names be omitted.

“Our chickens are right there,” Andi says pointing from her back deck to their contraband aviary and two hens. The birds cluck contentedly, scratching for bits of food, revealing no sense that they’re accessories to a crime that could lead to a misdemeanor conviction and a fine of up to $250 for their owners.

In Richmond, chicken owners must have more than an acre of land — 50,000 square feet to be exact — as well 500 feet between the coop and any building. Andi and James don’t have that much property, and therein lies their transgression. “We only have three-quarters of an acre here,” Andi says, far less than the required minimum. And the coop is only 200 feet away from the nearest house, which is up a slight hill.

For five years, the couple has lived with their unlawful chickens, but Andi says being an outlaw isn’t all bad. Her favorite malfeasance is getting a fresh egg from the coop and mixing it in the blender with a banana, milk, a spoonful of sugar and a bit of vanilla extract.

“It’s delicious,” she declares. “I wouldn’t do that with store-bought eggs because I don’t want to get sick. Actually I probably would still drink it, because it really is delicious.”

Andi is an outlaw.

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Richmond’s banishment of chickens from residential areas came about more by accident than intent. In 1996, then-City Councilman Anthony Jones, hoping to strengthen laws regarding confinement and restraint of dogs, took the matter of domestic animals to city officials. The Department of Health asked to take part in the discussions, which broadened to include various animal-control laws. An ad-hoc committee was formed to look into the matter further, and it came back with the more-than-an-acre rule, which effectively expatriated chickens from city limits. The proposal was adopted in May 1997.

In contrast to their hard line on chickens, Jones and his ad-hoc committee seemed unconcerned with bovines and other large, hoofed animals. Current city code allows cows, horses, mules and goats, although the code specifies that they cannot “go at large, graze or pasture on any street, alley, park or unenclosed lot within the city.”

And, by the way, bells on cows? Expressly prohibited, though it’s unclear if accessorizing is prohibited for cow or owner.

Andi doesn’t know about the cow law. But she does know that dogs didn’t get banned. “I can hear my neighbor’s dog more than anyone will ever hear my chickens,” she says — she notes her strict policy against owning roosters, those famously noisy fowl. “It’s so bizarre to me that you can’t legally keep chickens,” she adds.

She has company. A growing movement in the Richmond area seeks to change the anti-chicken regulations. Since March, a loosely organized coalition, formed through a Facebook page titled “CHICKUNZ,” has been attending city and county government meetings. The group wants localities to adopt looser rules for chicken ownership so that people can keep as many as a half-dozen birds in backyards in residential areas. 

So far, at least two City Council members are not amused.

President Kathy Graziano, who helped create the hugely popular South of the James Market by championing farmers markets and the local-food movement, did not respond warmly to inquiries about allowing chickens within city limits.

“This is about the chicken people?” Graziano asks during a telephone interview. “I’m not going to get into this one.”

Council member Reva Trammell, elected to represent the 8th district just months after the 1997 passage of the anti-chicken ordinance, was more open … and utterly opposed to the movement. 

“The people in my district would just be upset about it,” says Trammell, whose electoral zone is among the city’s least affluent. She says she already hears too many complaints from her constituents about chickens — and at least one goat.

“I don’t want to see an animal [killed],” says Trammell. “The neighbors have called me where they’ve seen them kill the chickens ... and eat them. Billy goats too, that’s been in my district, and police have gotten calls on them.”

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On Tuesday, March 8, the Henrico County Board of Supervisors’ meeting is pretty packed, in part because of the presence of a dozen or so residents who hope to overturn the county ban on chickens in residential districts. They occupy three rows of the supervisors’ chambers, waiting patiently through a half-dozen rezoning cases. The chicken lobby is a diverse group — a man in casual business attire, young women with an at-home-mom way about them, a man from mostly rural Varina in a worn trucker-style baseball cap.

The range of appearances is part of a strategy, it turns out. “One of the things we really tried to do is bring a diverse group of supporters, not just a couple crazy chicken people,” says Amy Randolph, a mother of two who manages the downtown Barnes & Noble on VCU campus. ”There’s a real movement.”

Randolph says she doesn’t own chickens … yet. She confides that she plans to get chickens despite the law. Randolph doesn’t eat meat, and sees chicken eggs as a path to a balanced diet for her family.  “Eggs are an important protein source to us, and I will not eat eggs unless I know where they come from. … I don’t even know if I’m really a chicken lover, but I’m a local-food lover,” she says.

During the meeting, some speakers acknowledge that they already own chickens illegally and argue that the county’s ban is unfair. (It’s not technically a ban, since chickens are allowed anywhere in the county as long as the homeowner has enough property to leave 400 feet between the coop and all other structures.) “I don’t have 400 feet between [my] chickens and the property line,” admits one man, who asked not be identified for fear of losing his fowl. “I would need 15 acres to do that.”  Another man, who lives on 3 1/2 acres, says he still can’t satisfy the distance requirements.

Often that means paying premium prices at farmers markets, where a dozen eggs can cost twice as much or more as grocery store eggs. She says chickens could be an important way for low-income families to improve their diets.  

Randolph adds another argument: Think of the children. “I think of the kids out there who don’t even know eggs come from chickens — they think they come from the grocery store,” she says.

The ongoing push to legalize urban chickens likely started in Copeland Casati’s west end Henrico back yard.

It’s an average-sized yard, flanked on one side by a two-car garage and on the other side by a spotty hedge, behind which lives a middle-aged couple who really don’t like chickens.

Casati, who maintains she asked all her neighbors before acquiring her chickens, insists she had no idea there was such antipathy. She loved owning chickens. “If you've always gardened or grown your own food, it just makes sense,” Casati says. “It just seemed like a great addition to the garden — which I found out quickly by the number of Japanese beetles they ate, the grubs they eliminated. And they improved my soil. I loved that.”

For three blissful years, her neighbors’ brooding dislike was unknown to Casati, her husband, Kristof Casati, and their two children. Then in early March, a utility crew working its way through the neighborhood’s back yards mistakenly released two of Casati’s six chickens into the neighbors’ yard.

“There was a knock on my door and the neighbor, Catherine Vanderspiegel, said that two of our hens had gotten out,” says Casati. Casati maintains that she asked Vanderspiegel and all of her other neighbors before acquiring chickens three years ago.  “I apologized, saying I knew that the utility people had been in our back yard,” Casati says. “She said, ‘Chickens shouldn't be in Richmond. Get rid of them now.’ ”

The next day, Casati says, she saw a white pickup truck in the neighborhood; she spotted a man observing her back yard. She assumed it was a county official. The jig was up. Rather than pay fines that could mount up to a $1,000 per chicken, she threw a farewell party in the chickens’ honor and sent them to live on a friend’s farm. She’s still in mourning and given to occasional tears.

She admits she never saw her chickens as pets — at least not until they were gone.

“But I don't consider our goldfish pets either ... or consider them communicating with me so much.”

“They were a great education for our children and the neighborhood,” she says. ”Why is it OK [to] have a parrot and not a chicken? I don’t see a distinction.” She never kept roosters, Casati points out, because that would have been unneighborly.

“Why can you have rabbits?” Casati demands. “Why can you have a cat? A cat likes you as little as a chicken does. In fact, I think my chickens liked me more. They did follow me when I garden. ... They're right there with me looking for what I stir up. It's cute.”

The Vanderspiegels declined to comment. But other neighbors were happy to talk.

“We really enjoyed them,” says Marie Miltz, who lives with her husband, Lindy, directly behind the Casatis. She and her husband are elderly, and spend lots of time gardening in their own yard. They did not attend the farewell party.

Miltz says the most she ever heard out of Casati’s chickens was gentle cooing and an occasional startled cluck when one would lay an egg. “I can’t imagine why anybody — with all the noise that goes on in the world — would complain about a chicken. We have trains go by way down by the river. We hear them and we don’t complain about that. I hope she’ll get some more [chickens], and then we can get back to normal.” 

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Just a few miles up I-95, Ashland, the self-proclaimed Center of the Universe, recently was named by Bloomberg Businessweek as the best Virginia community for raising kids. Ashland is also a relative poultry paradise. Chickens are welcome as long as their owners seek permission in town.

“We’ll typically put a limit of no more than five on the property,” says Ashland Town Manager Charles Hartgrove. Sometimes, when city administrators are feeling extra cautious, they’ll require a pen to contain the birds. But sometimes not.

“It’s not something we’ve enforced heavily,” Hartgrove says. “We don’t get a whole lot of complaints about it — and [we] get even fewer applications about it, to be honest. I’ve been here about eight years and I’ve had slightly less than 10 residents come forward in that time to request a permit.”

Hartgrove says Bloomberg in its assessment of Ashland didn’t seem to take issue with the chickens, and he speculates that many Virginia localities outlaw chickens not for health reasons but because people falsely see keeping hens as anti-progress. “I think a lot of it goes back to the beginning of the last century, with towns trying to modernize themselves,” he says.

Similarly, in Charlottesville the debate about chickens was settled long ago. “Urban chickens?” says Craig Brown, Charlottesville’s city attorney, pshawing at the idea that such things are considered unusual. “Are you sure you don’t want to talk about goats?” Charlottesville’s leaders recently amended the city code to allow people to keep miniature goats.

In many towns, passing the amendment might have taken years, provoking many news-of-the-weird lawsuits and plenty of public rancor. Not in Charlottesville. “It was just someone showing up extolling the virtues of keeping goats,” Brown says, noting that the city’s goat advocates had organized under the banner: Goat Justice League of Charlottesville. Their tag line: “I’m pro-goat and I vote.”

The revised city ordinance, Brown says, allows “no hogs or goats other than miniature hogs or goats less than 100 pounds…. I guess our animal control guy had to go out and buy scales to weigh them.” Also, male goats must be neutered and de-horned. Residents are permitted to keep only three goats each, unless the animals are nursing or under 12 weeks old.

Charlottesville has never prohibited or restricted chicken ownership, although they are not allowed “to go at large in the city,” Brown says. There was one chicken controversy not too long back, he recalls.

“We had a gentleman — a graduate student — came in and wanted the city to ban roosters,” Brown says. The student was frustrated with a particular bird named Ornery. “We drafted an ordinance to prohibit roosters in the city, but lo and behold, our council chambers filled up with rooster owners and council wouldn’t touch [the ordinance].”

Roosters remained legal, but not long after that “[Ornery] mysteriously died,” Brown says.

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A few days after the CHICKUNZ group’s appearance before Henrico’s Board of Supervisors, Amy Randolph isn’t sure how well things went over.

“I talked for four minutes and they acted like it was 15,” she says, though she was encouraged because “I felt like a few of the supervisors were really interested.”

In fact, in the following days, Randolph received a response from the county. In an email sent at the request of the Board, Benjamin W. Blankinship, a manager with the county planning department, wrote that “an amendment to the zoning ordinance would be the appropriate way to address this issue,” adding, “members of the Board will be discussing your proposal in the near future.”

But what comes of any discussion will depend on two board members deciding to sponsor an amendment to the county ordinance. In a best-case scenario for Randolph, the amendment would change the county’s ordinance to allow one hen for every 10 square feet of yard, with a maximum of eight hens. Also: no roosters.

Randolph is hopeful: “I think a lot of these ideas that seemed out of the mainstream a few years ago are things they’re starting to hear about.”

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Since John Eberly joined Chesterfield County’s code compliance division about three months ago, he says he’s responded to exactly one chicken complaint. Instead, he says, “I have more people call and ask if they can have them. I think it’s been getting more popular to have your own eggs.”

Like Henrico, Chesterfield allows chickens in agricultural areas as long as property owners satisfy requirements for distance between the chicken enclosure and the neighbors.

That said, according to Eberly anyone is eligible to keep chickens in Chesterfield — for a price.

Applications for a conditional-use permit for keeping chickens cost $1,000 each. Besides that, applicants must weather a public hearing before both the county planning commission and the board of supervisors.

“Most of the time people, when they hear that fee, don’t want to go any further with it,” explains Brenda Manuel, a county planner with Chesterfield who recalls one such permit request in her long career.  Without that permit, fines are between $100 and $250 per clucker.

Casati was among the first Henrico residents to come before the county board “several times,” asking the board to legalize poultry in residentially zoned areas. “You would think they'd at least have the courtesy to read about it — to see how much zoning around the U.S. is changing to be chicken friendly,” she says.

And from her point of view, there are plenty of reasons to be friendly to chickens — among them community development. Last year, Casati organized the first Richmond Coop Tour, modeled on similar events in other major metropolitan areas including Dallas.

“Just as we get excited about the Maymont Garden Show, cities are adding coop tours to their cultural agendas,” she says. “Over 80 people came to our coop tour. They were architects, teachers, engineers, builders, business owners and gardeners.”

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Randolph says that Richmond area ordinances are unfair because they lump poultry in with other livestock. “Historically it may have made sense, creating these residential areas that are not for farming,” she says. “But now, if you remove roosters from that equation, it doesn’t make as much sense.”

Randolph is familiar with yet another community, Sarasota City, Fla., where her parents live, which recently amended its laws to allow hens in residential areas. “Sarasota City is fairly affluent, focused on development,” she says. To her, Sarasota offers proof that a fast-growing community like metro Richmond is not too urban for poultry. “Once chickens were made legal, there was a lot of education available on [chicken care],” she explains. “Demonstrating that really helped them to get to the point where the city was ready to accept chickens.”

Care, according to various chicken owners, is minimal. A coop can be built from leftover lumber and chicken wire. Since chickens don’t fly higher than a few feet, they can be contained by a standard backyard fence. Chicken feed is $12 a bag and so readily available it can be bought at downtown Richmond grocery stores.

“Most people I talk to, they think it’s a kooky idea at first,” Randolph says. “But once you talk to them for just a few minutes, they become interested themselves.”

After hearing that Charlottesville now allows goats in the city, Randolph muses, “I would love to have goats but I’m not pushing my luck.”

Which is probably a good idea, if she’s trying to win friends among members of the Richmond City Council, some of whom find goats a thorny subject.

Trammell’s record is clear: She is against billy goats (“My district, they’re all talking about the billy goat on Gordon Avenue,” Trammell says), and she remains staunchly against city chickens. “I don’t think the mayor would want them in Brookbury and that’s got a lot of land,” Trammell says. 

But how about those other cities that have embraced the birds? No sale: “I don’t think I want to be going to Charlottesville.”


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