VIRGINIA BEACH, Virginia — Attorneys for The Rutherford Institute have asked the Virginia Supreme Court to affirm the right of homeowners not to be treated as criminals for attempting to enjoy the benefits of keeping chickens and the wholesome, organic benefits they provide. Specifically, Institute attorneys have come to the defense of suburban resident Tracy Gugal-Okroy, who has been subjected to criminal charges for keeping chickens on her property as pets and as a source of fresh, wholesome and organic eggs her family enjoys in alleged violation of a local zoning ordinance.
In bringing Okroy’s case before the Virginia Supreme Court, Rutherford Institute attorneys are challenging 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.
“Burdensome rules, regulations and inspection requirements—many of which are indecipherable except to lawyers and bureaucrats—now impede the ability of health-conscious individuals and small farmers to raise and produce their own food free of corporate contaminants,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. “This case speaks to a growing problem in America today, namely, the overcriminalization and overregulation of a process that once was at the heart of America’s self-sufficiency—the ability to cultivate one’s own food, locally and sustainably.”
In 2011, 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 their Petition for Appeal with the Supreme Court of Virginia, Rutherford Institute attorneys are challenging the lower court’s ruling as misconstruing 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.