The Aberdeen City Council approved legislation Monday night that allows city residents to own hens within city limits, capping off a years-long debate on whether the fowl should be permitted in Harford County’s largest municipality.
Passed by a narrow margin, the legislation will take effect on Aug. 16. Mayor Patrick McGrady, councilman Jason Kolligs and councilwoman Sandra Landbeck voted for the ordinance while councilmen Adam Hiob and Tim Lindecamp voted against it.
Landbeck’s vote swayed passage of the ordinance, which was approved with a raft of amendments proposed by Lindecamp and Hiob. The issue, she explained to the council, was a question of personal autonomy and the reach of government; in her view, it was not the city’s place to dictate how citizens can use their private property, though she personally was against chickens.
“If I could get up and speak as a citizen I would say I have never been for chickens ... However, because I am here as a councilperson I need to vote what is right, not what I want,” she said. “The government can really not tell you what you can and cannot do with your personal property unless it is harmful to others.”
The ordinance allows for residents to keep up to six hens — no roosters — per half-acre of land. Each chicken must have at least three square feet of space in a coop, and the coop will require a building permit if it is larger than 24 square feet, according to the ordinance. Revenues from the permit will help offset the costs of code enforcement, according to the legislation. The coops must also be built of specified materials, assuaging the council’s concerns residents would craft unsightly housings for their hens.
McGrady asked for patience from those who would build a coop larger than 24 square feet and recommended they build smaller structures to avoid the headache of going to city hall to request the permit.
“I encourage people to be patient with the city as were developing the regulatory infrastructure that would support this new permit,” he said. “It was not something I wanted to see… we are going to need some time to get our ducks in a row.”
Several attendees of the meeting took issue with the permit requirement, and at least one scolded the council for what she saw as political logrolling. Kolligs said citizens should take comfort in the differing points of view the council offered — few of the votes on the ordinance’s amendments were unanimous — and disagreed with the notion that the group coordinated to ram the legislation and amendments through. He said it was part of being a transparent legislative body.
“Hopefully you are finding some sort of comfort in seeing disagreements in votes; they are not all 5-0. We are not conspiring behind closed doors,” Kolligs said. “These are debates that we have in front of you, and people have their positions that they are sometimes maintaining and sometimes discussing. I think that is a good thing.”
Aberdeen has disallowed chickens since the 1950s. Recent discussion of chicken ownership in the city started in 2012 when the city ordered Frank Turner of Chesapeake Court to get rid of six chickens living in his yard. In 2014, he requested an amendment to or removal of the law. The issue has resurfaced periodically since then, with select residents reviving the matter in a 2018 letter to the editor.
Harford, along with Montgomery and Howard counties, allow chickens within their limits — though sometimes with restrictions on coop placement and roosters.
The city’s advisory planning commission voted against allowing chickens in city limits on June 10, and the commission’s chair Mark Schlottman stuck by its reasoning: chicken ownership would create a negative perception of the city and could open the door for others who want to own unconventional pets, among other reasons. Before he spoke during the public comment period, another person asked the city could consider allowing residents to keep ducks.
“There is your slippery slope right there,” Schlottman said. “We are still against that.”
The planning commission does not have the power to change the city’s code; it makes recommendations to the city council, which has ultimate authority to vote on the issue.
Lindecamp thanked the planning commission for their work and “apologize[d] this council did not take your recommendations,” after the vote was taken. He and Hiob voted against the ordinance from its introduction, citing the same concerns Schlottman held. Hiob thanked the council for its support on the amendments, which made the legislation more palatable to its opponents.
“I am hopeful we do not have any problems and it is a success,” he said. “Time will tell.”