Virginia Beach City Council approves urban agriculture committee to study backyard hens, other issues

City Councilmember Jessica Abbot, who represents the Kempsville District, sponsored the creation of the Virginia Beach Urban Agriculture Advisory Committee. [John-Henry Doucette/The Princess Anne Independent News]
Ed. — From the Sunday, May 23, print edition.

BY JOHN-HENRY DOUCETTE

OCEANFRONT — The City Council voted to create an advisory group to study agricultural issues outside the city’s rural area, such as whether backyard hens should be allowed in neighborhoods in the suburbs of Virginia Beach.

The council voted on Tuesday, May 18, to create an Urban Agriculture Advisory Committee to study whether hens or miniature pigs might be kept by people who do not live in the city’s agricultural districts. 

Additionally, the committee initially would be tasked to study the feasibility of a city composting program.

The council approved the committee in a 7-2 vote. City Councilmember Louis Jones, who represents the Bayside District, and Vice Mayor Jim Wood, who represents the Lynnhaven District, voted against creating the committee. City Councilmembers John Moss and Rosemary Wilson, both of whom hold at-large seats, were not present.

City Councilmember Jessica Abbott, who represents the Kempsville District, introduced the resolution, and she has long been a proponent of backyard hens in the city. It was co-sponsored by City Councilmember Michael Berlucchi, who represents the Rose Hall District.

The creation of the committee came after some discussion among members of the council and remarks by a number of speakers in support of its formation. 

“I’m opposed to allowing livestock or barnyard animals in residential areas,” Wood said during comments made prior to the vote. “And there’s nothing that any task force or committee is going to do that is going to convince me otherwise.”

There are issues related to hens such as disease and attracting predators, but Wood’s main concern is how state law potentially punishes dogs that injure chickens. The dog could be killed, he said, and the owner could be punished.

“Dogs on farms are properly socialized to interact with barnyard animals,” Wood added. “Dogs in Kings Grant or Great Neck or Thalia or Windsor Woods are not.”

City Councilmember Guy Tower, who represents the Beach District, said he respected what Wood had to say, but he added that he wasn’t ready to debate the issue that night. Tower, noting the comment of one speaker on the issue, agreed the issue should be “fully aired.” He would support the committee for that reason.

“Are we being asked to appoint a standing committee that is going to be around forever?” City Councilmember Barbara Henley, who represents the Princess Anne District, asked. “Or are we appointing a study committee that is going to look at the issue and bring it to us as to whether or not this is something we would adopt?”

“It’s my hope that this be a standing committee that can evaluate a number of issues,” Abbott said.

The committee, should it suggest a resolution for backyard hens, might also be a sounding board and deal with issues that arise, Abbott said.

Virginia Beach City Councilmember Michael Berlucchi, who represents the Rose Hall District, cosponsored the creation of the committee. [John-Henry Doucette/The Princess Anne Independent News]
Mayor Bobby Dyer noted that the issue may be controversial, and he said an ad hoc committee might be a better approach.

“I think there’s an interest in expanding opportunities for what’s commonly referred to as urban agriculture,” Berlucchi said. “I think that could be substituted for suburban agriculture, as well.”

He said this is not a replacement for the Virginia Beach Agricultural Advisory Commission, which deals with issues that impact the farming industry — including the city’s flagship program for that industry, the agricultural reserve program, or ARP. He said it compliments it while dealing with different issues.

Abbott said people in the community “want to be taken seriously, and I think this is a showing of good faith.”

Jones said people supporting the committee seem in favor allowing backyard hens. “I think that’s truly what we’re doing here,” he said. “I just don’t believe we ought to have backyard chickens.”

Bayside resident Jacob Long, 15, said he has been interested in advocating for the legalization of backyard hens for some time, and he called the committee “a step in the right direction” on that issue.

“I believe an Urban Agriculture Advisory Committee will be very helpful to make sure every voice in the city is heard relating to agriculture, specifically in the more urban areas where it has not been seen before,” Long said.


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