Urban farming: Federal Way considers new backyard chicken rules

Amid people's increasing desire to produce their own food, Federal Way city staff is reviewing the implications of allowing chickens and rabbits in urban settings.

Urban farming — growing one's own fruits and vegetables and even raising chickens or goats, for example, as a source of food within a city setting — is gaining in popularity. Regionally, the movement has received widespread attention, most recently in Seattle, where the city's code was reworked to encourage more urban farming.

In Federal Way, staff has received several inquiries about the city's ordinance governing backyard chickens and rabbits. It will now consider the benefits and drawbacks of expanding the ordinance to permit the animals in more urban settings.

Chickens and rabbits are allowed within Federal Way city limits. They are considered small domestic animals, and up to 20 may be housed on properties that are at least 35,000 square feet. They must reside in a clean structure that sits back at least 40 feet from property lines. When Federal Way's code was passed, the lot size requirement was practical, said Greg Fewins, Community Development services director.

Now, the requirement puts Federal Way at odds with the rising urban farming trend. While residents in other cities that do not feature lot size requirements are transforming their backyards from grass to rows of corn, peas, tomatoes, squash, chicken coops and essentially miniature farms, the majority of Federal Way folks live on smaller lots and are left out.

"The issue right now is that our code doesn't allow people to keep chickens on lots smaller than 35,000 square feet," Fewins said.

Federal Way's code differs from similar codes in Seattle and Tacoma. Both cities are more liberal in their codes.

Seattle's code

Seattle's urban agriculture ordinance was updated Sept. 23. The code focuses largely on urban gardens, now permitting residents to grow gardens up to 4,000 square feet for their own personal use or commercial use. Updated language pertaining to backyard chickens was included.

Up to eight chickens are allowed on an urban property. A resident's land does not have to be any certain size to house the hens, but the animals' living quarters must be at least 10 feet away from the resident's and neighbors' homes, senior planner Andrea Petzel said. Prior to the code update, only three chickens were allowed per lot. Residents wanted the freedom to own more hens, which produce eggs, but they are also pets, she said.

"We don't get a tremendous amount of complaints," Petzel said. "They seem to be community builders; people share eggs."

The city does get complaints about roosters. They are now banned in Seattle. Roosters are loud and don't belong in a city, Petzel said.

"They are just kind of a nightmare," she said.

Tacoma's code

Tacoma also permits backyard chickens. There are no property size requirements to be met. However, the hens must reside at least 50 feet from structures that house human beings, whether they be homes, apartments or hotels. All neighbors within 50 feet of where the hens are kept must give a written confirmation that they are OK with their neighbors owning chickens, city spokesman Rob McNair-Huff said. Roosters are not allowed.

The domestic fowl code was originally adopted in 1960, with portions updated in 1980. There have not been any major complaints about the ordinance, McNair-Huff said.

Check it out

A study session on the topic takes place 7 p.m. Sept. 29 in the Patrick Maher room at Federal Way City Hall, 33325 8th Ave. S. Staff will review codes in neighboring jurisdictions and decide on a recommendation to the city's Planning Commission. A public hearing on the topic will follow at a later date.

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