Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

Arlington’s flirtation with backyard egg production, after two years of poultry puns and a culture clash worthy of the TV satire “Portlandia,” is coming to a boil.

As promised, the 21-member Urban Agriculture Task Force last week delivered its report, and—surprise—the 74-pager with its 27 recommendations is a serious, consensus-seeking compilation. “Issues surrounding healthy and sustainable food production, distribution, consumption and disposal impact the lives and livelihoods of Arlingtonians as never before,” said its chairman, my pal John Vihstadt.

Hence the report speaks of “of interlinking factors, including the need for locally produced, quality food for a variety of consumers – ranging from the most vulnerable in our community to those who simply wish to embrace a healthier lifestyle.”

The three-minute version is that the report recommends allowing backyard hens, but caps them at four. It recommends no roosters; a set-back requirement at least 20 feet from property lines; that residents file plans for coop placement; that the majority of adjacent property holders (within 50 feet) consent; and that coop inspection be required before hens can set up housekeeping.

Two minority reports were included, one seeking looser requirements and another from a skeptic requiring more study.

The Arlington Egg Project, the movement’s ringleader, gave it two wings up. “Keeping small numbers of backyard hens is good for people, good for the natural environment, and good for hens,” its statement said. “That’s why a large and increasing number of American communities embrace backyard hens. It is unclear whether these recommendations, if adopted, would actually result in more Arlington residents keeping backyard hens.”

Less enthused was longtime Arlington Civic Federation activist Jim Pebley, whose new website, Backyards, Not Barnyards, warned of excess animal waste runoff; a need to transport unsustainable amount of chicken feed; increased risk of salmonella exposure; and explosion of pest population, including insects and rats. “The smell! Oh, god, the smell!” its statement clucked.

The report impressed me with its in-depth recommendations for an urban agriculture commission, integrating backyard farming into county planning, promotion of community gardens and yard sharing, a county composting system, and helping farmers markets accept food stamps.

Its nifty history of Arlington farming notes how “the land used now for homes, schools, churches and soccer fields were working farms until the mid-1950s. In the 18th, 19th and into the 20th century, the land now Arlington County was a rural, sparsely populated area. Corn, livestock, dairy, and timber were primary sources of income for farmers.”

It was changes in technology–railroad transport of food and preservatives—that produced the numbers that trace the decline: In the 1860s, more than 15,000 acres of Arlington (23 out of 26 square miles) was farmland. At the dawn of the 1900s, there were 379 farms in Alexandria County (which then included Arlington), decreasing to 96 by 1910. When Arlington became self-governing in 1920, there were just 50 farms. By the mid-20th century, it was down to 24.

Vihstadt told me he was pleased that all five county board members accepted the report and “felt we had a lot of substantive recommendations. It’s not another big government tangent but keeping pace with what jurisdictions around the country are already doing,” he told me. “The last thing we want is to have hens overshadow the other priorities. There’s a lot more on the menu than chicken dinner.”