Cathy Hudson knew the practice of raising chickens in her backyard made her part of a growing suburban trend, but when she learned Williams-Sonoma, purveyor of pricey kitchen gear, had started selling chicken coops — including a two-level cedar model for $1,499.95 — she thought, "OK, we have arrived."
"This is no longer your hillbilly" thing, said Hudson, an Elkridge resident who keeps chickens in four coops on two properties she owns.
In many suburban communities, residents are raising their own chickens as pets, for their economic advantages and as a way to forge a closer connection to the food they eat. The rising popularity is encouraging for Hudson, an activist who's campaigning to make it easier to keep backyard poultry in Howard County.
She has created the Chickens in Howard County Facebook page and has filed a formal request with the county, hoping to change zoning rules that currently limits chickens in residential areas only to those who have nearly an acre of land and can keep the birds at least 200 feet from the nearest neighbor's house.
"Many people want to know where their food comes from, and being able to get eggs from their backyards is very appealing," wrote Hudson, president of the Howard County Citizens Association, in her request. "Also, chickens make wonderful pets, and are far less annoying than many dogs and cats. This is another way that Howard County can help its citizens be more sustainable."
Howard is the latest Maryland jurisdiction to consider easing restrictions on keeping chickens in urban or suburban settings. The City of Annapolis gave residents in single-family homes permission last spring to keep up to five hens — no roosters allowed — and a group in Baltimore County is trying to muster support to soften the rules there.
The chicken proposal in Howard County, which would set an eight-hen limit for backyard coops, is part of a countywide review of zoning maps and rules. But it's also a state and national phenomenon.
"It's a movement of sorts," associated with enthusiasm for locally grown food, said Guy Hohenhaus, state veterinarian with the Maryland Department of Agriculture.
While the vast majority of Marylanders do not keep chickens in their backyards, those who do number "a whole lot more than 10 years ago," he said.
State records show 111 backyard chicken owners have registered in Howard County, Hohenhaus said. Baltimore County has 93 registered backyard flocks, Baltimore City has 274 and Carroll County has 385.
"They're the most useful pet you would want to have," said Stephen Luckett, who kept seven chickens in his yard in Dundalk — until a neighbor turned him in last year in for violating Baltimore County's rule requiring at least an acre of land.
Luckett lost his case before a hearing officer, and sent the birds to live at a St. Mary's County farm.
"We miss our chickens," he said. He praised the hens for their friendly personalities and their abilities to aerate soil by scratching and to keep the local insect population down. Their droppings make fine fertilizer for his vegetable garden, he said. And, of course, there are the eggs.
Luckett said there's a group of about 50 people in Baltimore County hoping to persuade County Council members that backyard chickens have widespread support.
Bob Lalush, a supervisor at the Howard County Department of Planning and Zoning, said his agency began studying the issue in 2012, after getting calls about it for years.
A review of rules in cities around the country convinced planners that Howard's 200-foot setback requirement was too high, Lalush said.
He said Hudson's request, received in December, helped spur the decision to draft a proposal as part of the county's comprehensive rezoning, a process expected to be completed this summer.
Hudson keeps her chickens on one acre where she lives and also on a nine-acre property nearby that she rents to a family. In her request to the county, she suggested that people who live on properties of less than an acre be allowed to keep up to five hens, with no requirements for distance from the nearest neighbor or property line.
The county proposes to set the hen limit at eight, to bar roosters entirely, to drop the land requirement from 40,000 to 10,000 square feet and the setback to 15 feet from all property lines. The new rules would not apply to Columbia, to apartment houses or to many areas in the eastern portion of the county, Lalush said, where the lot sizes are too small. In those areas, the current restrictions would remain.
Marsha McLaughlin, director of the county Department of Planning and Zoning, said the agency decided to hold back on allowing hens to be kept at townhouses or apartments, given the possible objections to noise.
McLaughlin said there was no evidence of potential hazards of disease or other problems that could arise from keeping hens in closer quarters, but she said "we were trying to ease into it."
Suzanne Lancelotta, a real estate agent with Masters Realty in Clarksville, said she believes not everyone will accept the change in the lot size.
Lancelotta, who grew up in Ellicott City, said she personally supports backyard chicken farming and the health benefits of fresh eggs. She noted that her son raises chickens and keeps a spotless operation. "But he's on five acres," she said. "Not everybody can keep a nice coop."
She doesn't believe the change would adversely affect property values across Howard County because it's considered a desirable locale. But she said noise and the possibility of luring predators could discourage some potential buyers.
"I think it would have a definite impact in a negative way on resale [of a house] for a neighbor," she said. "I just think a quarter-acre is too small."
Hudson — who plans to give a presentation on chicken keeping at GreenFest at Howard Community College on Saturday — testified to support backyard chickens at a Planning Board public hearing this week. She argues that the rules are still too restrictive.
"I'd hope to have townhouses allow them," said Hudson, who also takes issue with the total ban on roosters, regardless of the property size above 10,000 square feet. As loud as roosters can be in the morning, she said, they should be permitted if the owner has at least an acre.
Lalush said it's not likely the 10,000 square foot minimum would be adjusted for this round of zoning revisions, but he said that "doesn't mean we won't potentially go there in the future.
"We want to see how this proposal, for lack of a better term, flies."