Chickens could be OK in Salem
The feathered flap over chickens could be over and backyard hens be legal in residential areas of Salem, if a proposal discussed by Salem City Council in a work session April 23 passes later this summer.
Under proposed changes to to the Salem Comprehensive Plan, single-family households could keep up to six hens – no roosters – in approved coops and enclosed outdoor runs if they pay a $25 fee per year, have their hen houses inspected by an Animal Control Officer and if there is sufficient space away from the next-door neighbors.
Four Salem City Council Members, with Mayor Randy Foley absent, concurred with the “Urban Agriculture” section on “Keeping of Chickens” developed by Deputy Zoning Administrator Mary Ellen Wines. She researched chicken laws in 13 other counties, town and cities in Virginia, ranging from Vinton to Alexandria and Bristol.
The proposal allows homeowners or renters with landlord permission to keep hens for family use only, but not for selling eggs or slaughtering for sale.
The proposed section to the comprehensive plan would first go to the Salem Planning Commission, at its May 16 meeting, and then if commissioners recommend approval, Salem City Council would hold a public hearing on June 11 and a second reading June 25. The change could go into effect July 5.
Council agreed with Salem City Manager Kevin Boggess that work sessions and a public hearing on the proposed 2012-2013 city budget should be done first, and concurred to wait to hold hearings on the chicken ordinance until the comprehensive plan comes before council.
Wines also interviewed three Salem residents who have backyard hens now, she said.
Carrie Cox, who has had laying hens for four years, said, “I’m very impressed with Salem for going forward with this. I find it commendable they’re concerned not only for potential chicken owners but also for the welfare of the chickens.”
She added she is interested in a solution that works for everybody.
Cox said she believes a few details need to be re-examined, such as the set back distance keeping chickens 25 feet from the property line and no closer than 50 feet from a back-yard neighbor. Cox and her family use movable “tractor” coops that they move to a different section of grass each day.
In 2008 after some neighbors complained about hens next door to them, Salem officials proposed a ban on chickens except in agricultural zones.
Council members and city representatives were unprepared for the feathery fallout flap that resulted. It turns out at least 16 residents, according to Wines, who live in residential districts, were quietly keeping backyard flocks. Salem City Council representatives, Boggess and other city representatives went to a few of the homes to see how the hens were kept. Basically, city officials agreed not to do anything then, until this year’s proposed revisions to the Comprehensive Plan.
When talking about required setbacks and distances from hen-owners to neighbors, Council Member Jane Johnson said, “I just think it’s important to be kind to the neighbors.”
Councilman Bill Jones asked if people who already have backyard chickens would be grandfathered, in other words, be allowed to keep the chickens they have without meeting proposed requirements. Wines said no. “They would have to adjust.”
The city manager and individual council members praised Wines’ efforts at researching and writing the proposed ordinance section. “I think it is a well-written ordinance,” Council member Lisa Garst said. “Thank you for sticking with it.”
And even people who don’t have chickens are speaking up in support.
“My husband and I are all for having chickens in a regulated urban culture,” Salem resident Jan Morgan wrote in response to the Salem Times-Register’s posting on OurValley.org the morning after the work session “I think as citizens of Salem it would be an added benefit to keep up with the growing number of trends of ‘back-yard farming.’ Hurray for Salem! I will be looking forward to hear that this law is being passed!” added Morgan, who, with her husband Mark, is a vendor at the Catawba Valley Farmers’ Market.