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Aberdeen citizens renew calls for chicken ownership; city officials say they will carefully consider it

The message citizens relayed to the Aberdeen City Council was unified: We want to own chickens. It is a familiar request, going back to at least 2012.

Multiple public comments advocating for chicken ownership in the city’s limits preceded a brief discussion of the topic at the council’s Monday meeting. Now, the recurring question of whether or not city residents can keep chickens on their properties will be brought up for the council’s consideration at a future meeting.

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Mayor Patrick McGrady said he and two other members of the city council have requested the city attorney draft an ordinance to change the city code and allow for hens within city limits. As long as they are taken care of — and flocks do not include any roosters — McGrady said there is little issue.

"I think that people ought to be able to have the freedom to have a reasonable number of female chickens,” McGrady said. "Roosters tend to be loud, and folks who live in the city are generally not far enough away [from each others’ homes] to avoid the crow of a rooster at dawn and other times of the day.”

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In a Facebook post, councilman Jason Kolligs said that legislation could be introduced on May 11 before its public discussion and adoption at subsequent meetings. He said three council members supported the resolution as of April 23.

The city attorney is still ironing out the details of the ordinance, Kolligs said, but he hoped that the number of chickens that could be owned would scale with the amount of land available to them. Kolligs supports the ordinance to correct what he sees as an unnecessary restriction.

“For me, this has always been about enabling personal liberty and as long as you are not harming others, you should be able to do with your land as you wish," Kolligs wrote in an email. "Any issues perceived with chickens as pets are just as easily assigned to other pets such as dogs and cats, therefore the exclusion of chickens as pets is an unnecessary constraint on property owners.”

According to a memorandum sent from the Director of Planning and Community Development Phyllis Grover to City Manager Randy Robertson, chicken ownership has been prohibited in Aberdeen since at least September 1957, though the code’s wording has changed over the years.

The language was updated in 2018 when Aberdeen’s planning commission voted to keep the restriction, according to the document, prohibiting “the breeding, raising, or possessing of poultry or farm animals” in any district of the city.

Aberdeen’s planning commission is different from many others in Maryland, McGrady explained. While some planning commissions can issue legally binding decisions, Aberdeen’s is purely advisory, and ultimate authority to enact its recommendations is left up to the city council.

Though the council has not gone against the planning commission’s recommendations in recent memory, McGrady said, past councils have.

Before that, in 2012, the city had ordered an Aberdeen man to get rid of six chickens that lived in his yard. That man, Frank Turner of Chesapeake Court, requested an amendment to or removal of the law and brought with him a petition signed by 24 people in support of his point. He quoted C. S. Lewis on the subject of tyranny and said ownership of chickens for personal purposes was a “matter of freedom and merit rather than the popularity of opinion,” according to the council’s March 24, 2014, meeting minutes.

The issue simmered for years before appearing again in 2018 when a letter to the editor of The Aegis implored citizens to fight for their right to chickens. Other jurisdictions like Howard and Montgomery counties — the later of which prohibits roosters and regulates the placement of chicken coops — allow the birds. Harford County, too, allows poultry to be kept on property a minimum of 2 acres in size, regardless of its zoning classification.

Would-be Aberdeen chicken owners have marshaled online, gathering 148 likes on a Facebook group called Aberdeen Backyard Chickens since Jan. 2018. Much of the page is devoted to chicken-related memes, but several posts show a coordinated effort to reach the city council.

On Monday, some came through email — the way the council has been soliciting public comment since the COVID-19 pandemic ramped up in Maryland.

“I do not understand why I am not able to own a few egg-laying chickens for my family,” one wrote.

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“I’m in support of persons rights to decide for themselves if they can have chickens,” another wrote.

McGrady said that the city does catch wind of some illegal chickens every now and again, but not because they are a nuisance.

“Generally, when the city finds out about these things, it has not been the result of a complaint … it is more ‘we see this guy has chickens’ or ‘this guy has ducks,'” he said. “Backyard chickens, if they are cared for, you cannot tell they are there.”

Councilman Adam Hiob said his support for the ordinance will be contingent on what appears in the final draft. A compromise can be reached between those who do and do not want chickens, he believes, but he said more work would be needed on the initial draft before he can endorse it.

“If an ordinance gets passed, I think reasonable measures to be included would have to protect neighbors who do not or did not expect to live next to chickens when they chose to live within the City,” Hiob wrote in an email. “This would have to include a provision about adjacent neighbor sign offs before the City issues a permit for someone to own chickens.”

A limit to the number of chickens a person could own would have to be instituted as well as a permitting process that allows neighbors to provide their input and helps the city cover administrative or enforcement costs associated with the poultry. Chickens would require a different regulatory framework than other commonly found household animals like dogs or cats, he said.

Chicken flocks need to be registered with the Maryland Department of Agriculture unless they are five or fewer in number and are “are housed for less than 120 days in a 12-month period,” according to the department’s website.

Chairperson of the planning commission Mark Schlottman has sent a letter to the council to reiterate the board’s 2018 decision against poultry and farm animals in any district of the city.

Schlottman said the issue of fowl being allowed within the city was a smaller issue in the context of larger changes to the city’s development code. The voluntary commission solicited citizen input on the issue and decided the fowl did not need to be allowed, but it is not as if they targeted chickens specifically.

“With input from citizens and from the board, we just looked at the fact that chickens could cause noise, they could cause litter,” he said. "The planning commission did not feel it was in the best interests of the city.”

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The planning commission has not been meeting since the coronavirus pandemic began, Schlottman said, in the interest of transparency. Their meetings are public, and Gov. Larry Hogan’s executive order prohibits gatherings of 10 or more people. Many governmental meetings in Harford County have been conducted electronically since the pandemic kicked up.

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