SOCIAL CIRCLE – The issue of whether or not to allow backyard chickens to be kept in residential communities has made its rounds over the last couple of years in many local communities. Sometimes proponents have been happy with the outcome and other times not. The Walton County battle did not turn out the way proponents had hoped and backyard chickens are not allowed in residential districts in unincorporated areas of the county. The issue came to Social Circle at the March city council meetings and indications are that it may turn out better for people in the city who want to keep chickens in the residential areas, albeit with some limitations. Roosters are less likely to be considered in a residential area and there are likely to be restrictions to the number of chickens based on the size of the property.
At the work session, Social Circle City Manager Adele Schirmer said that the issue had been evaluated for several months by an advisory commission and a call had been put out for public input. The agenda packet for the meeting included some of the research on ordinances regarding backyard chickens in surrounding cities and counties.
According to Schirmer, the Planning Commission initially recommended against allowing chickens in the city’s residential areas, but the Historic Preservation Commission had recommended allowing it, with a limitation of no more than two chickens on lots of at least a 1/2 acre. Schirmer said that the public response had been largely positive with a Facebook site garnering about 100 positive responses. The city had, however, received about 20 emails in opposition.
The matter had been raised by Social Circle resident Crystal Presley, who was in attendance at the city council work session to make the case for those in favor of it. Nobody turned up to speak out in opposition.
“We sent out a lot of emails – I’m very passionate about this topic,” Presley said, noting that she had received feedback of about 97 positive responses. “Even the smallest lot can accommodate chickens. They don’t need much space. According to the Virginia Department of Agriculture, a large chicken doesn’t need more than a 4 ft x 2 ft space. People could easily just go to Tractor Supply and pick up a small coop.”
Presley said she and her wife had moved to Social Circle from the City of Atlanta and were surprised to find that they could have chickens there, but not in the more rural Social Circle. People did have chickens in residential areas of Social Circle, however, some were not aware they were in violation of the ordinance. There are also people with pigs, goats and even horses. However, after being contacted by the zoning office for being in violation, Presley took up the cause to try and get the policy with regard to chickens changed for everybody.
“For some people it is not just as pets or for education – some people are relying on chickens in order to feed their children,” Presley said, going on to say that research has proven that dogs and cats are more disruptive to a community than chickens. She said, in doing her research, she also found that livestock is not clearly defined in the current ordinance. She asked that as an alternative the city possibly consider grandfathering in those who already have chickens or leaving it up to the owners’ interpretation as to whether chickens are pets or livestock.
Several other residents spoke out in support of the issue, including emotional testimony from a military wife who had been forced to flee from an abusive relationship following the after effects of the war in the Middle East.
“I have six laying hens and those hens help me feed my children and bring me peace,” she said. “It is taking away not only from my table, but also my peace of mind. I hope that you can consider redoing the ordinance. My chickens do not run and roam freely. We are part of the face of the community.”
Another resident noted the historical preservation that Social Circle tries to adhere to and pointed out that “in 1918 Uncle Sam actually sent out notices to people that it is your duty to have backyard chickens to support the war effort.”
Another speaker, Barbara Barth, who was in the process of moving to Social Circle from Decatur, expressed surprise that there was a possibility that backyard chickens may not be allowed. She said she couldn’t have chickens because she had dogs, but wanted to support those who could. She also noted that having chickens is very popular right now.
“It may sound odd, but chickens are the hottest commodity around. If you want to draw young people…. everybody wants chickens – everybody in urban communities does,” she said. “I was shocked that there was a problem with this in Social Circle.”
The item was on the agenda for the city council meeting that was scheduled for right after the meeting, but Councilman David Keener said he was going to propose instead that the city attorney take a look at drafting an ordinance that would allow for some sort of keeping of backyard chickens in residential parts of the city for the council to vote on at a future meeting.
Although the Walton County Board of Commissioners had considered a similar request back in 2015, eventually deciding against it, proponents in the county haven’t given up. A Facebook page, Walton County Chickens, has been established with hopes to build support for backyard chickens to also be allowed in the unincorporated area at some time in the future.