Daithi Htun of Laurel has a vision for a self-sustainable life in which he and his wife grow or produce everything they eat. But he says there is one missing ingredient: chickens.
Htun, a self-sustainability advocate, has been meticulously cutting out his reliance on store-bought food. He spends most of his time in his back yard tending to his garden, and he and his wife make as much food for themselves as they can.
But Htun says that in order to have the protein he and his wife need, they would like to raise chickens on their property in Laurel. He said there are few cons to having a chicken coop in the backyard.
Having chickens “has been a tradition in America up until World War II,” he said. “The whole idea is to reduce things we use.”
Htun is a member of Prince George’s Hens, a group pressing the Prince George’s County Council and Planning Board to permit a zoning change to allow small groups of about four chickens, specifically hens, on residential property.
Zoning laws in Prince George’s County, and most of its municipalities, ban farm animals on residential property under half an acre.
The group wants to debunk people's perceptions about chickens. They’re not noisy (except for roosters), they don’t smell, they till soil in the yard, they fertilize the ground and eat bugs, and, of course, they produce eggs that are less likely to harbor food-borne illnesses than factory-produced eggs, said Bradley Kennedy, a leader for Prince George’s Hens.
“Chickens represent sustainability," she said. "They represent knowing where your food comes from. We want to live in a society where our food is produced responsibly and sustainably.”
The group’s goal for self sustainability fits a national trend of relying more on locally grown and produced food, according to Peter Marks, a program manager for the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, an Asheville, NC-based nonprofit that advocates for self sustainability via small, local farms.
“It’s been a hugely growing trend,” Marks said. “We all care about jobs right now. Buying locally keeps people in business.”
Marks said small and micro-farming, similar to what the Hens group is seeking, could help reverse the culture of shipping food from far-away regions, which drives up costs. He said that 80 percent of the country’s farms have vanished over the last 50 years.
“It’s the drip, drip, drop of a faucet that nobody notices," he said.
But not everyone is singing the praise of chickens. In Laurel, council members still can remember farm animals roaming Main Street, something some say they don't want to relive.
“I don’t want chickens in backyards because they’re dirty, and I don’t want to be that personally acquainted with my food,” councilwoman Jan Robison told the Laurel Leader. “When I first moved here, someone across the street from me had a rooster that crowed at 3 a.m., so people have been able to have chickens in the past. Hogs used to graze on Main Street, but those things were banned.”
Andrea Davey, a spokeswoman for the Prince George’s County Planning Department, said conflicts in the county’s zoning provisions have caused problems in categorizing which agricultural uses are allowed in residential zones. The Planning Department is currently reviewing zoning categories, with the hope of making recommendations to the Planning Board.
“These recommendations could include legislative amendments to resolve the conflicts and help clarify what agricultural uses should or should not be permitted in various zones, as well as ways to address the question/desire for expanded allowances for certain animals, such as chickens, in urban communities,” she said in an e-mail.
The county is steadfast in reinforcing zoning laws, though some municipalities have been lax in handing out citations to residents.
Joy Newheart, 52, of Berwyn Heights began smuggling chickens into her backyard in 2003. She purchased her first group as hatchlings. She thought they were all hens but a rooster sneaked into the bunch and eventually blew the whistle on her operation with its loud sunrise greetings. The county soon swept in and gave her 30 days to get rid of the chickens.
“I was upset. There was no recourse. There was no appeal process. I was outraged,” she said. "I can keep hens back there and not get caught. It's the damn rooster that keeps getting me in trouble."
Months after giving up that coop, she again harbored chickens in her yard, but they fell victim to a neighborhood fox.
“I can’t explain why I love chickens so,” she said. “I wanted eggs. Maybe it’s the survivalist in me.”
Still, some residents throw caution aside in dealing with current zoning laws. One county resident said he told his neighbors he was getting a group of chickens. With their support, he said, it's become the neighborhood's best-kept secret. He said he shares his eggs with the community and allows children from the neighborhood to pet the chickens.
"I've become much more aware of the conditions of factory-farmed chickens, and I don't want to be a part of that," he said on the condition of anonymity. "There is no reason why one shouldn't be able to have chickens in a suburban community like this."
The idea of raising chickens in a yard isn't far-fetched, according to Maria Kaplan, 48, of Bowie. She said she began researching how to raise chickens after helping to babysit eggs one spring in Bowie.
“I’ve been very interested in getting chickens in my back yard,” she said. “I think it’s in my blood. My great-grandfather was a country doctor and people would pay him with chickens.”
But until there is a changing in zoning laws, residents wanting chickens have to keep them in secrecy.
Newheart said she wants more despite her earlier setbacks.
“I love the daily [routine] of them. You can pet them and nestle with them,” she said. “I got a bad itch to get chickens again.”