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Backyard chickens voted down

Smithfield’s Town Council voted 4-2 on June 1 to kill a proposed ordinance amendment that would have reversed the town’s prohibition on backyard chickens in residential areas.

Ronald Levi, who recently moved to Smithfield with his wife and two children, had filed an application with town staff to amend Section 18-202 of the town code, which currently bars the keeping of horses, mules, cows, pigs, domesticated fowl, sheep or goats outside areas zoned for community conservation. His proposed amendment would have stricken “domesticated fowl” from the list of prohibited animals and added a new section, 18-206, providing provisions for the location and maintenance of domesticated chickens within areas zoned as neighborhood residential, suburban residential or downtown neighborhood residential.

“Even big towns and cities like Newport News, Hampton and Williamsburg all have chickens,” Levi said during the portion of the meeting reserved for citizen comments. He wasn’t alone in his desire to see backyard chickens come to Smithfield either.

“I don’t really get it; my dad lives five minutes from downtown Portsmouth and is allowed six hens,” said Brittany Taylor, another citizens’ time speaker. “We live in a rural area … we have the room.”

Ten-year-old Audrina Jorgensen then approached the lectern holding a stuffed-animal chicken as she told the council members how she’d moved to Smithfield from Utah in 2018.

“I was very against the idea of moving and the only reason I wanted to come was because I thought we could have chickens,” she said. “I’ve always loved chickens since I was little … and when we moved here I was very disappointed, very, because we weren’t allowed to have chickens.”

“Unfortunately, we didn’t do our research when we got our chickens,” Taylor continued. “We thought we were under Isle of Wight because we pay property taxes to both y’all.”

In 2017, Isle of Wight’s Board of Supervisors voted to change portions of the county code to permit residents to raise chickens on residential-zoned properties in the unincorporated areas of the county, but a similar ordinance that would have allowed chickens in residential-zoned areas of the town of Windsor died in Town Council chambers that same year. Smithfield’s prohibition on chickens, according to Mayor Carter Williams, dates to the 1990s. At the time, chickens and roosters were “running all over the town,” he said, until a resident of the historic district complained about the roosters’ crowing every morning. To resolve the issue, Town Council passed an ordinance banning chickens in most areas of town.

“Growing up in the rural area of Morgart’s Beach, we had some really poor-looking chicken coops,” Williams said. “I’d hate to see them all over town if they’re made up of anything you can find on the beach.”

That evening was the third time the mayor could recall that Smithfield’s Town Council had discussed the issue of backyard chickens.

Levi said he’d started a survey on the hyper-local social media website Nextdoor.com, which drew about 170 supporters. But other Town Council members said they’d received comments prior to that evening’s meeting from residents in opposition to having chickens in town.

“’We’ve done this 100 times, Randy, we don’t want chickens in our town’ — I’ve heard that overwhelmingly,” said Town Councilman Randy Pack.

The choice before the council that evening was to decide whether or not to send the draft ordinance to the town’s Planning Commission for further debate.

“It would be silly though for the Planning Commission to do that if the Town Council had no willingness to pass an ordinance,” Pack said.

The council ultimately voted not to send the draft ordinance to the Planning Commission, effectively killing it. Williams, however, said he felt more debate was warranted, specifically concerning what mandatory setbacks from property lines would be imposed for chicken coops. He and Vice Mayor Michael Smith were the two dissenters on that vote. Councilwoman Renee Rountree was absent.

Levi is now hoping the town will return the $570 he spent to file the paperwork for the proposed ordinance amendment.

“They completely shut that down yesterday, didn’t even let us go through the process, so I don’t think they should keep my money,” he said, speaking to the newspaper the following afternoon.

But his fight for backyard chickens is “far from over,” he said. Come the next Town Council election he plans to rally with the other chicken supporters to “get some folks voted in who may be for it.”