Delivering a blow to the sustainable living and local food movement, the Virginia Supreme Court has refused to hear the case of a Virginia Beach resident who was prohibited from keeping chickens as pets and as a source of organic eggs. In denying the appeal filed by The Rutherford Institute, the Virginia Supreme Court let stand a judgment against Tracy Gugal-Okroy, who has also been subjected to criminal charges for keeping chickens on her property in violation of a local zoning ordinance.
Rutherford Institute attorneys took issue with a Virginia Beach inspector’s assessment that Okroy violated a zoning ordinance that prohibits raising “poultry” for “agricultural and horticultural uses” within residential districts. The Rutherford Institute has been particularly vocal in recent months regarding the need for less onerous regulations that render otherwise law-abiding individuals as criminals simply for attempting to grow or raise their own food in a sustainable manner.
Despite the Virginia Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the Okroy case, this is not an issue that is going to go away. Weekly, we’re getting calls from individuals and families across the country who are being cited and fined for simply growing or raising their own food in a sustainable manner. One way or another, something has to give. Either the laws have to change, or the courts do. Certainly, at a time when food production is increasingly being corporatized, outsourced, and corrupted, resulting in all manner of diseases, we should not be criminalizing people who want to keep things local and sustainable.
The case started in 2011, when Tracy Gugal-Okroy purchased a dozen chicks from a Virginia farm and began keeping them in the backyard of her suburban residence within the City of Virginia Beach. Before doing so, she constructed an elevated coop and fenced in an area of her yard to keep the chickens from ranging and to protect them from predators. Gugal-Okroy consulted with her neighbors who all gave their permission for her to keep the chickens. The chickens, which have been given names by the family, provide companionship and entertainment for the family and neighbors. They are quiet, and provide the additional benefit of eating mosquitoes and other pests. They also provide Gugal-Okroy with a supply of compost, manure and fertilizer for vegetable and flower gardens she keeps on her property.
However, on January 10, 2012, Gugal-Okroy received a notice from the City inspector that she was in violation of a Virginia Beach zoning ordinance that allows “agricultural and horticultural uses” within residential districts, except the keeping of “poultry.” Gugal-Okroy appealed this decision to the City’s Zoning Board of Appeals and in support of her appeal presented no less than five letters of support from neighbors. Despite the support of neighbors, the Board of Appeals upheld the decision that the chickens were not allowed in the City. Gugal-Okroy then appealed to the circuit court, during which time she received a summons charging her with being in violation of the City’s ordinance, with a possible fine of up to $1,000. On October 31, 2012, the Circuit Court ruled that the Zoning Board of Appeals’ decision “was not erroneous” and decreed that the chickens were being kept in violation of the City’s zoning ordinance.
In asking the Virginia Supreme Court to hear Okroy’s case, Rutherford Institute attorneys asserted that the lower court’s ruling misconstrued the City’s ordinances, pointing out that persons are allowed to keep fowl within the City and that the restriction on keeping “poultry” relates to agricultural uses, not keeping chickens as companions and pets. — John W. Whitehead