Residents push for change in Balto. Co.'s chicken laws

On April 8, 2013, Kevin Mercer was issued a citation from Baltimore County for illegally housing two chickens in the backyard of his Catonsville home.

On Aug. 22, he was granted a variance from the county, giving him permission to keep them.

"[Almost] Six months of not knowing whether you're going to be able to keep your pets," Mercer said.

The county's action means he can keep Lotti, a barred Plymouth Rock chicken; and Harriet, an Easter egg chicken.

The Baltimore County Council voted unanimously Tuesday to ask the county planning board to reconsider the current laws requiring residents to own at least one acre of land in order to own chickens as pets.

The request comes as a result of a council resolution requesting a review of zoning regulations on chickens.

That's good news for Halethorpe resident Alana Riches.

She said she has always wanted to own chickens, and when she lived in Baltimore City, even went through the process of obtaining the proper permits to do so.

Once she moved into her townhouse in Huntsmoor, she learned she was not allowed to pursue her dream of having a backyard flock of heirloom breed chickens.

According to county law, an individual must own at least an acre of land in order to house backyard chickens.

On Aug. 5, 1st District Councilman Tom Quirk co-sponsored a resolution asking the county to revisit that law.

"We've had numerous phone calls and emails from the constituents looking at the whole natural egg ... trend that's happening out there," said Quirk, whose district includes Catonsville and Halethorpe.

"It's just something that I think is definitely worthy of study," he said.

The council hosted a work session Aug. 27 in Towson on the issue, during which both Mercer and Riches spoke in favor of changing existing laws.

Mercer said the current law is unfair and that most of the common complaints about chickens are false.

"They think they smell," Mercer said of chickens. "If you have a house where you have 15 dogs in a small yard, it's going to stink.

"Their manure goes away very fast," he said, adding that the waste can be composted, unlike that of other family pets.

He said the perception that chickens are loud and attract rodents are also myths and spoke highly of his birds and the joy they have brought to his family.

Mercer said his daughter and son enjoy the birds' presence as pets, and he and his wife enjoy about a dozen fresh eggs during laying season — usually from about March to November.

"We haven't bought eggs in a store since 2010 [when we got the chickens]," said Mercer, who ordered his chickens online.

"There's actually a big movement to own small flocks in your small, suburban neighborhood," Mercer said. "Reasons for getting them are the eggs, knowing where your food comes from."

Mercer thinks the existing laws need to change to allow small numbers of chickens on properties of less than an acre.

Riches said she hopes "Baltimore County will put the law more in line with Baltimore City and other surrounding areas."

In Baltimore City, residents who obtain a proper permit from animal control can own up to four chickens that are more than one month old, as long as they are housed in a movable pen with at least 2 square feet per chicken, and the pen or coop is located 25 feet from a residence.

Riches said she thought such a law would work in the county and, should the current county law be changed as a result of Quirk's resolution, she plans to buy chickens as soon as she can.

"If the law passes, then I definitely would do whatever it is I need to do — whether it's applying for a permit, if it's registering my chickens," she said. "Whatever I need to do to keep it legal, I would."

Ginger Myers owns Evermore Farm with her husband, John Myers, in Westminster and said she has seen an increase in suburban residents wanting to own their own flocks.

She said residents should do their research on how to take care of chickens before starting their own flock.

"If they want to get into this, and a lot of people do, it's like taking care of a family pet," Myers said.

The Carroll County resident said she thinks Baltimore County is doing the right thing considering laws for ownership.

"Most of the ordinances that I'm familiar with across the country do not tie to a land mass, they tie to a number [of chickens]," Myers said. "They do not allow for roosters.

"I'm not sure that the acre [requirement] makes a lot of sense," she said. "Having to have an acre, I would question why they chose that number."

If properly cared for, chickens typically live three to five years and will lay about 270 eggs a year, Myers said.

Between those for laying eggs and those for eating, the Myers have almost 1,000 chickens on their property.

"Three or four chickens, they'll feed you," she said.

"And chickens are very personable," she said. "It's an entry level critter fix."

The County Council was scheduled to vote on Quirk's resolution Sept. 3.

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