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Charleston Council, task force look into laws regarding urban agriculture

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Chickens in the city? You might be surprised.

Rumor has it there's at least one henhouse in downtown Charleston and another in the East End.

Just no roosters, please. No one wants to be awakened before dawn every day.

City Council members and Planning Department staff in the city's Strong Neighborhoods Task Force hope to tweak current zoning laws that apply to farming practices, spurred in part by residents calling the Planning Department.

"It pops up maybe every couple weeks -- 'My neighbor has chickens' or 'We're interested in doing this,'" said neighborhood planner Geoff Plagemann. "There was one running around the East End, and still is.

"This whole thing piques peoples' interest, and it fits with the sustainable lifestyle. How far can you take it? People want to raise chickens."

The back-to-the-land movement of the '70s brought hundreds, maybe thousands of counterculture types to West Virginia to try their hand at farming. Now the trend has moved into the cities.

"You can go across the country," Plagemann said, "all the large cities are looking at urban agriculture. The American Planning Association has several pamphlets on the subject. Planning Magazine, they did a whole issue dedicated to urban agriculture."

Last year, city Planning Director Dan Vriendt asked Plagemann to look into the matter.

"Already in the city we have a lot of little plots, community gardens," Plagemann said. Tom Tolliver has several gardens on the West Side, he said, and is planning another on a Rebecca Street site the Charleston Urban Renewal Authority originally planned to turn into a small park.

Plagemann took the issue to the Strong Neighborhoods Task Force. "Dan felt it was a good fit with their objectives, since we're talking about sustainable neighborhoods. We brought it to them, just to see what they thought: Do you want to take it on as a task force?

"They wanted more information and to see how it fit into our city code. Some people already thought [the code] addresses this."

It does, but not clearly. People are allowed to keep non-commercial livestock or poultry in residential neighborhoods, but only on lots of at least one acre and if they don't create a noise or odor nuisance.

Officially, "We have to look how big the lot is. Right now the answer is no. That's why we're looking at changing the law," Plagemann said.

"It's a big, gray area. I've only heard of one [person raising hens] on the West Side, one downtown and one on the East End. We know for sure there are some in other places.

"Unless your neighbors care, it's not something we're going to spend time on. We're not going to go out inspecting for chickens."

Legalizing them, and other urban agriculture activities, is another matter, though.

Gardens have stormwater and fertilizer issues. What do you do with chicken waste?

"Eggs. Honey. Are you allowed to sell it? The deeper you go the more protections you need," Plagemann said.

"If you raise bees and your neighbor gets stung, you may think you have immunity under state law, but in the city you don't. State law gives beekeepers immunity, but in West Virginia a farm has to be at least 20 acres.

"I know someone on the West Side who has two hives. We've had calls. No one's been stung, but can he do it?"

The task force next meets at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday in the conference room of the City Service Center on Quarrier Street.

Plagemann's been researching laws in other cities to find models for Charleston.

"I'm looking at Portland, Baltimore, New York City, Seattle and Oakland, Calif. In San Francisco, it was so popular they have a person in charge of urban agriculture. The one that seems to best fit our needs is Somerville, Mass.

"And Chicago was one of the best. They broke it down into two types -- community farms and urban farms. Community farms was not-for-profit groups, church groups and neighborhood groups that wanted to have a garden just for themselves. That's like what we have here.

"The other is an urban farm -- a for-profit business. If you have an urban farm, you're selling things. Then you get into a business license."

Charleston's new rules will have to deal with business, he said. "I don't think we can avoid it. Once you put a sign out in your yard -- Fresh Eggs For Sale -- you'll need a license.

"We have so many vacant city lots -- city owned and CURA. Urban agriculture is a really good use for filling in those vacant lots, and it incorporates the community.

"Tom Tolliver told me he asked a young boy, 'Where does broccoli come from?' and the boy answered 'Krogers.' He said he needed to fix that."Reach Jim Balow at balow@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5102.


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