Urban Chickens: The bigger picture

may 2010 013

Urban chickens a nuisance? I had four in this coop and no one ever knew…

Well, the chickens have won. Not of course the literal chickens, exiled as pets by virtue of prejudice and ignorance, but the figurative chickens – our local leaders who would rather stand obstinately on a disintegrating platform than take time to reach compromise on an issue that has obviously engaged the electorate.

Ty Unglebower in his piece “Passion of the Chicken” in Saturday’s Frederick News Post, alludes to a greater issue underlying the feathers flying in all directions – although he goes no further than questioning why a seemingly innocuous issue should create such a heated debate. As Michael Tuthill said to the Council on Tuesday “Relax folks, it’s not ISIS. No-one’s getting killed. It’s only chickens.”

Perhaps I can go further than Mr. Unglebower, instead of once again clearing my voice and attempting to explain how environmentally and economically sound a few urban chickens are. Quite frankly I grow weary of having to point out to people who should know better that a farmyard of chickens has more in common with a dog kennel than a few hens in a backyard coop. Or that a bear wandering through a recently constructed subdivision is not looking for a chicken dinner, but trying to find a migratory path now lost to asphalt and tasteful vinyl siding. Let’s just skip all these inconvenient facts, shall we, and come to the heart of the matter.

march 2015 020

Beautiful. And illegal in a community near you.

The fact is it’s not about chickens at all.

No. There are far too many towns, suburbs and major metropolitan cities that have allowed backyard hens without catastrophic consequences to show Brunswick (and Frederick for that matter), that this is a non-issue. New York City. London. Washington DC. Lovettsville and Waterford for Pete’s sake. Nope, it’s

[inconveniently] not about chickens.

What it is about, as one “anti-chicken” spokesperson so correctly observed in her tight-lipped speech to the council last Tuesday, is power. And bullying. And the desire of one side to have it “their way” and damn the opposition. (Thus saying, she righteously marched out of the room before the opposition had been given a chance to respond, and is to be commended for both beautifully illustrating her point, and giving those of us left a bit of well-needed comic relief.)

However, it is exactly when bullies squawk and storm out and emotions run high that we ask our leaders to step up, put aside personal feelings, prejudices, friendships and alliances, and seek common ground. The great sadness experienced by many in the room during Tuesday’s meeting – including myself – was that once again, the majority of Brunswick’s leaders failed to make any effort towards such compromise, even though several options were available that would have ‘saved face’ on both sides.

Instead, four councilmembers lowered their eyes and shook their heads, unwilling to satisfactorily explain their position with a stubbornness that smacked of arrogance and ignorance all at the same time.

What this means for chickens in Brunswick’s backyards is obvious to both sides. But what it means for Brunswick as a city desperately trying to revitalize and stay relevant in a more sophisticated world is obvious only to those who understand how crucial good leadership will be in that effort.

So the chickens won…and the bullies…and Brunswick is all the poorer for it. There may come a day when common sense prevails; but in the [no doubt] ridiculously long meanwhile the City will risk alienating newer generations who have quietly been watching this pattern of governance and thoroughly reject it. For them and their families, Brunswick will remain a stopping point only – not a destination.

It is depressing to think that there are those who are happy to hear that.


About the Author:

Marianne is the mother of two, wife of one and the voice of The Small Town Gardener. She gardens and writes from her home in the scenic (and exceptionally convenient) heart of Virginia's wine country.


  1. Amanda August 20, 2015 at 12:17 pm - Reply

    You are my hero! Fantastic article 🙂

  2. Eric Beasley August 20, 2015 at 5:51 pm - Reply

    Three Councilmembers did clearly explain their position on Chickens and their corresponding vote. This included one Councilmember for Chickens and two whom were against Chickens. Your article is misleading.

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      Marianne Willburn August 21, 2015 at 11:05 pm - Reply

      Thanks for your comment. I’m afraid I strongly disagree. Doing [unspecified] research is not valid, nor is stating that one is representing the majority when no actual statistics are given. THAT is misleading.

  3. Tom Wyrick August 20, 2015 at 7:48 pm - Reply

    As a Brunswick resident (which apparently the author of this article is not), I’ve stated throughout this chicken debate that I remained rather neutral on the idea. On one hand, I’m a big believer in libertarian “small government” that doesn’t interfere with what a person does as long as the activity doesn’t negatively affect someone else. On the other hand though? There are many activities that can be safely allowed ONLY when the participants follow quite a few policies or procedures. Especially in a smaller city or town, the local government simply may not have the resources to enforce the codes necessary to ensure it’s handled properly, so they err on the side of caution by simply not allowing the activity within their borders. (More Brunswick residents are gun owners than chicken owners, for example. And a target shooting range can safely be constructed on one’s personal property if it’s done the right way. Should the city allow it?)

    The “pro chicken” folks try hard to make the argument that chickens can live in town without disrupting anything – but clearly, the majority of residents feel it’s better to keep them out than allow them and take a chance that they might not be 100% right about it. In my opinion, that’s far from “bullying” or being “power hungry”. It’s simple caution and an ability to take a “big picture” look at the situation and make a decision. (In the grand scheme of things, very FEW Brunswick residents would even have an interest in raising chickens. It’s financially a poor decision that will wind up costing a person a lot of money, for starters. It’s far cheaper to buy farm fresh eggs than trying to obtain your own by raising chickens on your property. And as close as just the next town over, chickens ARE allowed, so you wouldn’t have to travel far. As for the argument that chickens make great pets? A minority of folks may hold that opinion, but others hold the same opinion about owning a pet tiger, lion, or poisonous snake. There’s a good reason the vast majority of people only select a very limited set of animals as house pets. Thousands of years of experience dictated that certain animals were smarter choices than the rest of them. If the majority of the community prefers not to have people raising chickens in the city they reside in, I think it’s admirable of city leadership to back up the will of the people — not cowardly!

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      Marianne Willburn August 21, 2015 at 11:55 pm - Reply

      The “author of this article,” and website for that matter, DID live in Brunswick for ten years. During that time, she felt that a shooting range or a pet lion would pose a slightly greater risk to her neighbors than housing four hens in a coop, so went with the chickens and had no complaints from neighbors – most of which remained unaware. After fighting the City six years ago in an effort to bring her hens out of the closet (whilst enjoying the melodious barking and aggressive behavior of several neighbors’ pit bulls) she grew tired of fatuous arguments that “the majority” was being represented, and grew even more tired of adverbs such as “clearly” and “obviously” being utilized to describe a group of people that were never and have never been officially polled on the issue. So, when it became possible, she moved three miles away to a neighboring town which allowed backyard chickens, but surprisingly, still can’t get the grassroots support for lions or tigers. Go figure. Meanwhile in Brunswick…pro-chicken supporters had a compromise pilot program ready to offer the City that could have been easily revoked later – Brunswick’s leaders chose not to entertain the idea for a second. Under the circumstances, “cowardly” is exceedingly apt, but I would be happy to run with “obstinate” or “inflexible” if you would prefer.

  4. Juli August 22, 2015 at 12:49 am - Reply

    Marianne, you did the right thing when you move. I’m agree 100% with Tom.

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      Marianne Willburn August 22, 2015 at 11:53 am - Reply

      Hmmm. I suppose thanks is in order for illustrating my last sentence Juli. What a shame.

  5. Allison August 22, 2015 at 12:08 pm - Reply

    Marianne, you continue to impress me with your tenacity, reason, and heart. And your gorgeous chickens (at both properties). I admire your candor and insight. Great article!

  6. Matt August 22, 2015 at 2:55 pm - Reply

    What is it, exactly, that the ant-chicken neighbors are so afraid of? What is the opposition to a few backyard chickens, Tom and Juli? There are countless examples of communities favoring urban chickens with sensible ordinances. The ignorance attached to the opposition (evident in Tom’s response) clearly shows an impractical concern. Is it noise? Odors? A phobia of chickens from a traumatized event as a child? Perhaps the so-called community majority was secretly fed an anti-chicken protein in their hormone-laced milk. There is an absurdity that I am having trouble grasping. Really, what is the top three fears of chickens in your neighbor’s yard? Ordinances have the ability to mediate all the concerns, short of one’s bullish inability to compromise.

  7. Jen August 22, 2015 at 4:19 pm - Reply

    This is great article. Thank you for writing this. I was very disappointed and frustrated by the meeting. Of the council members that would not consider a change in the ordinance, only one gave a reason for declining to consider that was clear to me. His reasoning was the petition in front of him against a change in the ordinance. However the proposed changes to the ordinance were not on the petition. Leaving me to wonder if all citizens that signed it would have if they had known that there were restrictions on roosters, the number of hens, set backs from neighbors and many other things that take into consideration our neighbors and citizens that don’t want to be disturbed by chickens. One council member clearly stated that she wan’t going to give a reason. The other two council members didn’t express their reasons clearly enough for me to understand them. Thank you for articulating the frustration that many of us feel.

  8. Mary Lou August 30, 2015 at 6:24 pm - Reply

    I find it amazing that our culture trusts big business to provide chicken/eggs and yet we do not trust our neighbor to provide for him/herself.
    The cost to the municipality that “may not have the resources to enforce the codes”, didn’t even seem to be a consideration. Both council members quoted above seemed to have made up their minds. If there are so few folks interested in raising chickens, then there would be minimal enforcement.
    Thank you for an interesting article Marianne.

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      Marianne Willburn August 31, 2015 at 1:40 pm - Reply

      Yes – you’re right Mary Lou. Unbelievably, one of the Council members echoed the ridiculous argument made six years ago by our ex-mayor (now on the Council) that allowing chickens in town would pollute the river below us – a river that is physically separated from the town by a MASSIVE train line that hauls coal out of West Virginia 24/7. It would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic.

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