Staff Editorial: District shouldn’t rush restrictions on backyard chickens

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While the majority of Mayor Muriel Bowser’s budget proposal focuses on major spending priorities such as education, public safety and affordable housing, a minor-seeming provision in the companion legislation has also attracted attention. Billed by the Bowser administration as a clarification of longstanding law, it would state that residents are prohibited from keeping chickens and other fowl in their yards.

As reported by WAMU radio, “captive-bred species of common cage birds” are allowed under a 1979 animal control law, and the District’s backyard poultry aficionados have argued that the law always intended to permit their chickens alongside canaries and parakeets.

We’re all for legislative clarity. When there are conflicting interpretations of a law, it only makes sense to eliminate confusion.

But in this case, the so-called clarification would mean that D.C. families would have to get rid of animals that they acquired in good faith, that provide fresh eggs and that, in many cases, are considered part of the family. Multiple Northwest residents have filed lawsuits to protect their chickens, and the District government is having to expend its resources to defend its positions.

We don’t doubt that there are arguments in favor of a chicken ban in the city — salmonella concerns, noise complaints or fear of attracting wildlife, for instance. But there are also strong arguments against such a prohibition, not least of which come from residents who are already passionate about raising chickens at home and do so safely.

In our view, the solution is a more detailed review of the situation. A D.C. Council hearing devoted solely to this subject would be an excellent start, where stakeholders and experts on all sides of the issue can share their thoughts.

We’re also optimistic that this process could lead to regulation of backyard chickens without a blanket prohibition – for instance, mandating a distance they must be kept from other homes.

We also agree with chicken defenders who say that the Bowser administration is unnecessarily rushing a non-emergency decision by including it within the broader budget package. The council has enough on its plate at the moment, and the chicken issue can easily be decided at some point after the budget is adopted.