BERLIN- Chickens are still legal within Berlin town limits after the Berlin Town Council unanimously rejected a ban on poultry.
The public hearing Monday night attracted more chicken advocates than ban adherents, a roughly 2-1 difference, who advocated regulating chicken-keeping rather than banning them.
The proposed change in the dog ordinance to ban farm animals, including poultry, was prompted by the case of Elizabeth Fisher, who town officials say violated the zoning code by keeping chickens, geese, and a rooster at her Berlin house. Fisher then asked the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) to consider her case. The BZA upheld the town’s decision.
Bradley Pollack, a neighbor who has been disturbed by Fisher’s poultry, told the town council that the whole issue had been blown out of proportion through the media and community by Fisher. He said she has not told the truth about her pet poultry or the property.
“Mrs. Fisher doesn’t live at the property and hasn’t lived there for at least eight years,” said Pollack. “If she truly does love these animals as pets she should take them where she lives and care for them properly.”
Only poultry lives there, he added. The geese and rooster disturbing the neighborhood were also removed before the town code enforcement officer visited the property, according to Pollack.
If Fisher is keeping the chickens to lay eggs, they should be kept in a coop, but they are not, he said.
Also, the area is zoned R-1 neighborhood residential, Pollack said, and it chickens are allowed, under town zoning law, what about the 200-foot setback required under the zoning code?
“I’m in support of the ordinance too,” said resident Gary Caldwell.
Chickens can attract other unwanted pests such as snakes, which feed on eggs and rats which eat chicken feed, he told the town council. “We just don’t need it in the neighborhood. It shouldn’t be there. I’m just against it,” Caldwell said.
Ann Pollack, in response to a resident saying that people like waking up to birdsong, said.
“There is nothing nice about Canadian Geese at three or four o’clock in the morning honking while you are sleeping,” she said.
With no one living in Fisher’s house, there is no one for neighbors to contact when there is a problem, Pollack said.
“There’s no farms in our neighborhood anymore just residences,” said Ann Pollack. Her children have allergies and asthma, which could be irritated by chickens kept nearby.
Cam Bunting, a neighbor of Fisher’s, related a story of another neighbor who fed wild ducks in their yard. The unconsumed feed attracted vermin.
“Eventually we killed 150 rats in that yard because of the food,” Bunting said. Later she mentioned that a neighbor saw a rat in the area recently.
Bunting, a real estate agent, said that people moving into the area often are concerned over living near farming operations.
“One thing you hear from people who don’t live around here, they don’t want to be around chickens,” she said.
The noise made by backyard poultry also mars the ‘quiet enjoyment” of one’s property, Bunting said.
“We’re not having any quiet enjoyment. We’re having noise,” she said.
Chicken supporters outnumbered detractors, however.
Chris Palmer, a lawyer representing Fisher, reminded the town council that the issue on Fisher’s property was a zoning matter, not an animal control problem.
“I think the precedent’s going too far one way. You’ve take this one isolated incident and now you’re trying to remove this right for anyone in Berlin to have a pet duck or chicken,” Palmer said.
Changes can be made in a less restrictive way, he said, to handle noises or smells, such as banning geese or roosters. Palmer pointed out that Baltimore City permits residents to keep up to four chickens, without roosters.
“Pursuing this ordinance here tonight as it’s written will be a big step back,” said Palmer. “I think the council’s going to overstep its bounds,” said Palmer.
Some suggested having poultry one one’s property was consistent with the rural nature of Berlin.
“I ought to be able to have a chicken or a couple of ducks,” said William Fears, who grew up on a farm in the area during the Depression, when raising chickens and pigs meant eggs and meat on the table.
Others said they wanted at least the right to have chickens on their property.
“I don’t have chickens right now but I’d like to have some chickens and I’d like to have chickens here in town,” said Kate Patton. Her neighbors’ only stipulation, she said when she asked their feelings about chickens on her property, is that she share the fresh eggs laid by her flock.
Patton said she understands the Ann Drive neighborhood’s nuisance concerns over Fisher’s poultry, and supports some restrictions on poultry keeping, such as a ban on roosters and geese. However, poultry and town residents can co-exist, she said.
“You can’t pick up a magazine or newspaper today without seeing this new trend of backyard chickens…this is not something that’s new,” Patton said.
Patton said that together, residents and the town could come up with regulations that satisfy everyone. The town could require proper shelter and fencing, for example.
“The rest of us shouldn’t have to have our opportunity banned,” said Patton.
After questions from Councilmember Dean Burrell over the situation at the Fisher property, Ben Pollack said that the owner only spends about 15 minutes a day at the property to pick up mail and look after the poultry which run loose in the fenced yard. “If you keep them in a coop and they’re properly kept I’d have no problem,” Pollack said.
Councilmember Lisa Hall called the ordinance a “knee-jerk reaction.”
“This ordinance as written I can’t support,” she said. “This matter has escalated completely out of hand. This was a nuisance, neglect issue,”
Any town regulations need to address more than setbacks and numbers, such as proper facilities, she felt.
“They have nowhere to go when the weather is bad,” Hall said. Poultry regulations should require that the owner actually reside at the same address as the hens, Hall said. Chickens also need wire fence, so they can see out, and not solid vinyl fence like Fisher has.
“I can’t support this at all,” Councilmember Troy Purnell said of the ordinance. However, no one wants roosters or geese waking them up before dawn, he said. “I do think we need to do something about the nuisance issue,” Purnell said.
“I guess I got a little bit too modern. I never thought about growing chickens again like my grandfather used to do,” said Council member Elroy Brittingham. “I think we should withdraw this ordinance tonight.”
“The problem is the nuisance situation,” said Williams. The town needs to research a way to require that a person live on the same property as their hens, he said.
As Mayor, Williams has realized, the biggest problems come over people who own property in Berlin but live elsewhere.
The problem is that one person did not take the neighbors into consideration, which is the origin of quite a few town laws, Williams said. “The reason governments exist is to take care of exceptions to the rule,” Williams said. “I think the people in this particular neighborhood have been extremely patient.
The Berlin Town Council voted unanimously to reject the new ordinance.
Alternate regulations will be proposed in the future, Williams said, and townsfolk will have the chance to once again comment in public on the law.