Virginia Beach backyard hen supporters make their case

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Councilwoman Jessica Abbott's backyard hens town hall
The crowd watches a speaker talk about backyard hens from a regional perspective at councilwoman Jessica Abbott’s first town hall. (Justin Belichis)

“I shouldn’t having to be begging the government to put food on my table,” a Virginia Beach man said in front of a microphone at City Councilwoman Jessica Abbott’s first town hall meeting Monday evening.

Locals flooded into Tidewater Area Christian Church by the dozen after about 70 people caused Lynnhaven Coffee Company to reach capacity to discuss one thing — backyard hens.

Hens will not live in Virginia Beach backyards legally until city council votes to adopt an ordinance to amend city code.  There are a few ways to move forward with this cause, according to Abbott.

One option would simply be for Abbott to propose a change in city ordinance for city council to vote on, under the guidance of Virginia Senator, and former councilman, Bill Desteph’s 2014 backyard hens draft.

“We’ve never voted on the issue, so the way council stands is technically an unknown,” Abbott said. “I can tell you I’ve talked with just about everybody and I don’t think we have the votes for it to pass at the moment.”

Town hall attendees originally gathered at Lynnhaven Coffee Company before it reached capacity. (Justin Belichis)
Town hall attendees originally gathered at Lynnhaven Coffee Company before it reached capacity. (Justin Belichis)

The draft proposes that Virginia Beach residents living in a single-family home with a 7,500 square foot backyard could be able to keep six chickens in a fully enclosed coop.

The quickest option discussed would be for residents to be able to apply for a conditional use permit, which many attendees said will cost money and time.

“With a conditional use permit, you can have wildlife on your property in a residential area,” Abott said. “That is contingent with a lot of things … but it is possible with proper criteria to do so.”

Abbott said the best option would be to create a ballot referendum, which would require about 32,000 signatures from Virginia Beach residents. Though referendums in Virginia Beach are non-binding, Abbott said it would send a message.

Abbott administered a survey regarding the topic this month, and about 93 percent of the 1,693 people who participated in it said they are in favor backyard hens.

“My survey serves as a good test out there that says there are people who are passionate about this issue,” Abbott said. “But a ballot referendum is the only way to prove that the city wants to move in that direction.”

Though no one verbally opposed the topic, Abbott said concerns she’s heard range from worries about pests hens could bring to general health concerns.

The last time Virginia Beach asked for public opinion on this subject was via a 2013 virtual town hall, which received 595 votes with 533 in support of backyard hens.

“People have the idea that a few chickens won’t hurt anything or anyone. Wrong,” 2013 backyard hen virtual town hall participant Jean Marquis wrote. “They are so smelly, dirty, and have no place in a residential neighborhood.”

Several supporters were vocal about the issue, asking about the options, how to connect with cities like Chesapeake and Norfolk that already have legalized backyard hens and how other resort cities have addressed this issue.

For local Adam Sutton, it’s just about putting food on the table.

“I’m looking to keep some hens in my backyard,” Sutton said. “It would provide food for families, you know where it comes from and it’s healthy … I’ve been talking about it for years and my daughter wants to do it … it’s a win-win situation for me.”

Sutton’s friend Jason Schatti, who had no intention on attending the meeting, said he just wanted some eggs from his buddy.

“I think it’s a great idea,” Schatti said. “It’s probably no worse than having a dog in your backyard.”

Moving forward, Abbott said there is work to be done in the forthcoming months, specifically meeting with the city attorney’s office to draft a new resolution.

“We all have to live here together, and everybody’s opinion of what the city should look like is valid,” Abbott said. “Like I said, good ideas will stick and bad ones will die.”

Follow Justin on Twitter @justinbelichismmj and contact him at justin@southsidedaily.com