By Tony E. Windsor

After a year of deliberations and delays, the Laurel Mayor and Council have adopted a revised ordinance that includes chickens among the animals that are prohibited to be housed in town limits. Last October, a town resident, Cheri Clark, requested that the town sanction her housing of six laying hens. She said the hens are for her personal use and provide fresh eggs.

Clark was concerned that the town was prepared to add chickens to the list of animals that are prohibited from being kept in the municipality. The revision to the town’s prohibited animals ordinance came about after numerous complaints of chickens roaming neighborhoods and in some instances, attacking small pets, including a kitten.

In November 2022, in response to Clark’s concerns, an ordinance was introduced as an amendment to Town Code, Chapter 49, and would allow a small number of laying hens to be kept by residents under strict guidelines.  

When a vote was eventually taken it failed for lack of a majority, with a split vote of three to three. Following the defeat, the council proposed a new ordinance, which amended Chapter 49 and prohibits chickens from being raised in town limits. The ordinance lists, “game cocks, other fighting birds, and fowl, to include but not limited to poultry such as chickens, turkeys, game birds such as pheasants, or partridges, other wildfowl like guinea fowl or peafowl, and waterfowl such as ducks or geese” to be prohibited.  

As the ordinance was being planned for a second and final reading during the Jan. 18 meeting of Mayor and Council, Clark made a final appeal to allow laying hens in town limits. She came to the meeting, this time armed with a community petition with 83 names in support of raising chickens in the town. 

She was met with a less than sympathetic ear, as Mayor John Shwed made it clear he had “nothing against” Clark or her chickens, but did not support an ordinance to allow chickens to be raised in the town limits.

In March, the council entertained a proposed ordinance crafted by the town’s attorney that would allow specific chicken types with special restrictions. The proposal was defeated four to three and the subject once again died with no changes made to existing ordinances. 

Shwed then cited concerns about what he considered to be a “fixation” by the local media on the chicken conundrum, when he felt there are more pressing issues for the community. “Every time I opened the newspaper there was an article about chickens. We have a great number of important issues going on in town, including new development and efforts to fill our police department. I was not interested in bringing the topic of chickens up until everyone is ready to make a decision.”

Shwed went on to say that for decades, there has not been a controversy about chickens. He said it has only become an issue due to people not taking proper care and allowing their chickens to roam free and become a public nuisance. 

After the ordinance had been given a “first reading” in June, a final reading and decision was delayed when on separate occasions, town council members who had not been in attendance asked to have time to review the ordinance before voting on a second reading.

Mayor Shwed became annoyed by the delays incurred by attendance issues, and vowed that the chicken ordinance would not be brought back for a second reading until there was a full council in attendance. He stated that the ordinance was taking far too long to address and urged it be decided and allow the council to deal with more important issues.

During the Monday, Oct. 16 meeting of Mayor and Council, all seven members were in attendance and the ordinance, 2022-5, was brought up for a final decision. Town Manager Jamie Smith said she had been in touch with the town’s attorney and he felt the ordinance was appropriate from a legal standpoint. However, Smith said the attorney said the previous ordinance language, which allowed Blue Hen chickens to be among permitted fowl, was not clear, therefore he recommended Clark’s chickens be “grandfathered” in and permitted.

Shwed called for a rollcall vote on the measure. Council President Chris Calio and Councilman Jonathon Kellam stated they would abstain. Shwed voted to support the measure, along with council persons Cheryl Martin, Carlos Oliveras and Donald Holden. 

When asked about her vote, Councilwoman Robin Fisher asked how the town would be able to identify whether a resident had owned chickens prior to the adoption of the ordinance, making them eligible to be grandfathered in the same way as Clark.

Shwed responded that for the purposes of the revised ordinance, only Clark was being considered for the grandfather clause. This caused Town Manager Smith to clarify that the grandfather clause could not be attributed at random, and would be appropriate for anyone who, like Clark, owned chickens prior to the ordinance change.

Fisher suggested that the town announce a specific time frame wherein any resident who owned chickens before the ordinance change can request to be grandfathered in. Otherwise, no chickens, other than those owned by Clark, would be allowed in town limits.

Pressed by Shwed to offer her vote, Fisher voted in support of the new chicken prohibition because “something needs to be done.”

With that, Shwed declared the chicken prohibition ordinance adopted with a vote of five councilmembers in support and two abstentions.