Published by City Farmer, Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture


Restrictive Covenants on Animals in Urban Agriculture

The following interesting discussion was sent to us by Joe Nasr of The Urban Ag. Network.

I am subscribed to H-Urban, the urban historians' main listserv. Recently, an interesting discussion took place that may be of interest to urban agriculturists - particularly those with a historical bent. A surprising number of historians took part in it over the course of one month. Some of the examples were contemporary. I cut and pasted below the most interesting messages from that discussion.

From: H-NET Urban History Discussion List,
Date: 11/20/2001 9:00 PM
RE: Restrictive covenants on animals
Posted by Clay McShane

While restrictive covenant have been a frequent topic on this list, the discussion has mostly turned on racial restrictions. I'm curious about restrictions on animals. Bob Fogelson at MIT tells me that the deeds for the Olmsted-planned subdivision of Palos Verdes banned chickens and rabbits. A posting here on Fri, 26 Jan 1996 from Susan M. Chase noted restrictive covenants on chickens and horses in Wilmington, Delaware. A local attorney tells me that most suburban subdivision deeds that she sees for post-1950 suburbs contain a ban on chicken-keeping.

It's real easy to imagine why such restrictions came into being. Animals smell, may cause disease, their keepers are likely declasse etc., but documentation of this is hard to find. Does anyone know if these restrictions have ever been the subject of public policy debate or tested in the courts or been discussed in other forums?

Posted by Terry Averill
Interesting discussion. Here in Annapolis, MD (Maryland's capitol city) just recently there was a controversy over a ' burro' being kept in a small shed in the backyard of a residence in our fairly urban environment. Neighbors were incensed to find out that since the City Code did not specifically mention this farm animal, but rather horses or mules, it could be construed as a 'pet' and therefore allowed the owner to keep it in the yard, regardless of the early morning braying that could be heard for blocks around and the yard slowly filling with excrement, not to mention that farmyard odor. Legally there was little the City fathers felt could be done to prevent this animal from being housed in the city. Being a 'mixed-breed' not specifically mentioned in the code was an advantage for the owner and a disadvantage for the community. 'FARM ANIMAL' prohibition was not enough to keep a family pet out, even one whose parents both were prohibited farm animals!

One 'burro ' is not enough to bring about a law suit, even in our litigious and wealthy society.

Posted by Joe Nasr
As someone who's been working on the subject of urban agriculture for years, your question clearly interests me. I believe that many (most?) zoning controls in urban or suburban areas ban or limit at least some forms of livestock-keeping. While I have not explored this question before, I did check out a few years ago what the ordinance for the county where I live (Fairfax in Virginia) says on the subject. An entire section does list in detail an amazing array of animals and birds, specifying - depending on the density of the residential area - the number of units that can be kept there, if any. In any other words, x chicken, y rabbits, and z sheep in Zone A, but l chicken, m rabbits and n sheep in Zone B. I would be curious, not only what the history of such controls may be, but also how such intricate (and seemingly arbitrary) formulas came to be. What scientific grounding - if any - helped in these formulations? Did they get developed through some expertise into model ordinances that were transmitted and adapted across the US? Europe? Elsewhere? Did any transmission of such controls cross over borders? In particular into colonies or former colonies? The last question is in fact not only historical in nature, but very much has currency in ex-colonies. Livestock rearing has indeed a far greater presence there than in the US context that Clay is asking about, yet this is occuring in a regulatory context that usually controls or forbids such activity from taking place. I will also pass any responses to the listserv of people involved in urban agriculture issues.

After all this talk of livestock ... happy Thanksgiving to all!

Posted by Lois Dean
Restrictions on keeping animals are everywhere! They have even become the subject of county law, carried to the most ridiculous extremes. There are factions which believe that NO animals should be kept outside one's house - and impose restrictions that result in the death of cherished pets with the complicity of the county employees paid with county funds.

It began of course with conflicts between those who in past times kept animals for food and extra income. In my grandmother's day, women looked after chickens or other small animals in order to earn a small steady income they had exclusive control over. I am speaking of Massachusetts in the 1900s. Later, to end this practice, various legalities were brought to bear.

Because of the subdivisions that occur in rural areas, the practice is still a commonplace. A friend of ours was driven out of his farming business - mainly goats and rabbits - by residents of the new subdivisions which crowded up against his property in rural Virginia over a period of years. They claimed his animals violated laws, and had plenty of laws to choose from. Eventually he lost to them, after many years of fighting for his original rights.

Posted by William H. Leckie, Jr.
Lois Dean mentioned that "in my grandmother's day, women looked after chickens or other small animals in order to earn a small steady income they had exclusive control over". Certainly as late as the mid-20th century they were an important source--and a regular one--of food. Some of my most vivid memories of childhood come from regularly watching my grandmother wring a chicken's neck, pluck, singe and clean it, and I was able to trace the trajectory of a chick to the dinner plate before I could read. (Maybe that's why I take such a jaundiced view of postmodern ideas--see below.) This was in a small South Texas hamlet, but (and this is meant to expand the discussion somewhat) as late as the 1960s little abbatoirs, with their adjacent pens, could be found in smaller cities--came across one in Wisconsin while going door-to-door for Gene in '68, and made our pitch while a fellow nonchalantly plied his work with a hatchet. There is, though, still memory of hog-keeping and slaughtering in St. Louis neighborhoods, and the last of the poultry and tanning processors on the city's riverfront was still functioning (and redolent, no, it plain stank to high heaven) into the 60s.

My guess is--and it is only a guess--that restrictions on animal-keeping emerged from two parallel developments. The first and most obvious is that of anti-nuisance and health ordinances. It would be interesting to trace the influence of large meat processors on this one, and a maybe post hoc relationship between them and the rise of the supermarket chain; again a personal reminiscence--in the town I was born in the "grocery side" of an authentic old-fashioned general store sent its butcher to the Wednesday livestock auction, and I went with him and helped bring back quarters of beef that had been on the hoof only a short while earlier; and the heads--for tongue and brains to make tamales--was displayed on a table unrefrigerated for sale to Hispano-Indians, or "thuh Mexicans," as they were called. The smells of fresh meat and of oily, red sweeping compound on an old wooden floor, mixed by slow-turning ceiling fans suspended from a tin-tiled celing, is one of the most persistent memories I have.

The second and private trend anticipates, in its way, the gated "community." One goal of the construction of suburbia has been to reduce the conflicts and annoyances created by them other folks, and to decontaminate the social by homogenizing its spaces. More than livestock have been declared anima non grata by covenant or ordinance. There has evolved a hierarchy of these public and private practices that goes beyond issues of public health, class, gender or ethnicity, or for the protection of property values, for the keeping of pets in apartment complexes has become increasingly difficult, and children, too, have been excluded.

These practices together say something about the nature of modern consumption and a largely successful effort to detach it from its sources, if not "desocialize" it. The exquisite formulae for maximum numbers of rabbits and such have about them the Borgesian precision of endless fractions of African "blood." The commonplace observation that few people in the US have even a clue as to where what they eat came from, or where it goes when they flush the toilet, may be what generates that strangely groundless field of urban-consumer imaginings! That that field may be consanguine--pun intended--to systems of control and exclusion with roots in early modernity should give pause to some.

Posted by Alan J. Bliss
In Florida the keeping of animals is often proscribed within deed-restricted homeowners' associations. Enforcing such restrictions becomes complicated when the animal is claimed by its owner as a pet, but is an uncommon species, e.g. a Vietnamese pot-bellied pig, a kangaroo, or a goat-- or chickens. Reptiles are sometimes problematic. The archives of major Florida daily newspapers such as _The St. Petersburg Times_ or _The Palm Beach Post_ should contain numerous references to such cases.

Posted by Lynne Horiuchi
The restrictions regulating the maintenance of animals are also related to controls governing the location of stables in residential areas around 1900. These controls were sometimes written into the restrictive covenants for planned residential communities, privileging the relative cleanliness, efficiency, and modernity of automobiles vs. animals.

Posted by James Dickinson
You might try the Animals and Society section of the ASA, in particular Julie Ford and David Nibert. They recently posted interesting syllabi for animals and society courses.

Posted by Terry Averill
The important thing for restrictive covenants is that they appropriately define a general category or activity (or in this case animal) completely and succinctly to achieve the desired result, but not so specifically that by failing to mention a particular 'species' or 'draft animal' the restriction is circumvented legally. The language used in any ordinance needs to be specific without becoming a list that inevitably leaves something out. The question gets down to: Is the term 'livestock' legally specific enough to limit animals that do not belong in specific urban environments ? How about 'farm animals'? Are there others? 'Draft animals' as Roberta Gold mentions?

Should laws minimize language and categories or expand them? Expanding the categories or classes named in any legislation (particularly in zoning laws), but also as we know from state and federal legislation, may mean attempting to include every known member of a species/class/race or gender so that no thing or person is left out. An impossible task I believe, and ineffective as in the 'burro' incident in Annapolis. Legislation that chooses words judiciously and sparingly (unlike my diatribe)should be the model. But how to achieve?!?

Posted by Kenneth Terry Jackson
I think the reason for anti-animal ordinances has to do with the pretensions of suburbia. As Thorstein Veblen told us a century ago it has to do with conspicuous consumption. I am so rich that I can keep this land without it being productive at all, that is to say no chickens or rabbits or anything useful. And if you do have horses, you have to have many acres, so that the horsy set can be distinguished from the farming set.

Posted by Barbara Kathleen Sungaila
You may be interested in the covenants attached to multiple occupancy sites in Australia. There are a lot of these, particularly in the state of New South Wales, which are heavily covenanted, ban domestic pets, require permaculture principles to be used in cultivation and so on.

A quick Google search will bring up many useful legislative references, as well as a sense of how these and other regulations are often opposed and/or supported via public debate.

An example of grassroots opposition to regulatory bodies can be found at

In Australian suburban settings, animal keeping is usually regulated by local authorities and this varies enormously in scope and restrictiveness. Logic and reason often seem to play little part in this; for example, my local authority allows the keeping of up to five chickens with no distinction between hens and roosters. Many local authorities ban the keeping of roosters in built up areas. Efforts to unify codes such as these are often stymied by a real and/or perceived threat to local power.

Posted by Michael Holleran
During the First World War the Victory Garden campaign, with its ancillary push for poultry raising, ran up against subdivision restrictions. At the 1918 Conference of Developers of High Class Residential Property (that's the name!) attendees discussed the issue. Duncan McDuffie (San Francisco & Berkeley), John A. Demarest (Forest Hills Gardens, Queens), and Edwin H. Bouton (Roland Park, Baltimore) all reported that their subdivisions banned at least chickens. They were not sympathetic with any effort to introduce "such an infernal nuisance" (McDuffie), but also did not want to appear unpatriotic, and hoped the issue would go away (2d annual conference, 698-701, in Cornell Archives). I don't know whether the issue did go away, but I imagine this period would be a good place to look for a public policy debate.

Animal restrictions have been around since the 19th century. I think they started out as legitimate nuisance regulations and evolved into the devices that Ken Jackson mentions for ensuring that suburbs avoided all productive activities. H. V. Hubbell, in the Olmsted Bros. office, in 1925 prepared a table of many of their subdivision restrictions (Landscape Architecture, Oct. 1925). The first animal restriction listed (1889, Baltimore County) is "no pigs, allow fowls, four horses, and two cows." Five years later in Newton, Mass., fowls were also banned, and horses and cows were "removable on complaint." Among the others listed are bans on "poultry at large" and roosters, and requirements that cattle and horses be kept "in screened paddocks." To accommodate the gentleman farmer, Uplands in Victoria BC allowed cattle on lots of more than five acres.

Helen Monchow (The Use of Deed Restrictions in Subdivision Development, 1928) abstracted 84 sets of restrictions, many including "livestock." And her discussion: "The list of nuisances vary widely, including the most obvious items such as the keeping of chickens, the erection of billboards, fuel tanks above ground, etc." (pp. 27/32). Chickens had fallen in with a bad crowd.

Posted by Joseph E Heathcott
This has been a particularly entertaining thread! I love hearing Lois Dean and Bill Leckie's memories of neck-wringing grandmothers.

Interestingly enough, these issues of so-called animal nuisance continue today, though generally in the form of ordinances, zoning, and animal control practices. The major contemporary debate about animals in the city today has to do with "dangerous" dog breeds in city neighborhoods. (There is quite a lot of underground dogfighting in St. Louis).

But debates over animal nuisance also continue along old lines. The recent influx of some 35,000 Bosnians into the South side of St. Louis has not been without clashes here and there, and one such clash arose last summer over the keeping of chickens and goats. Moreover, older residents of the Bevo neighborhood complained of the open-pit goat-roasting that is becoming a staple of the Bosnian immigrant community life there.

My wife was working for the International Institute at the time these complaints reached their height (last summer), and had some hand in intervening in the issue in the Bevo neighborhood. Certainly, like so many tensions, this one was deeply cultural in its origin. What is more, it turns out that there is no city ordinance against keeping chickens, pigs, or goats within the city limits of St. Louis! You just cannot keep horses or cows.

Posted by William H. Leckie, Jr
Joseph Heathcott wrote: "What is more, it turns out that there is no city ordinance against keeping chickens, pigs, or goats within the city limits of St. Louis! You just cannot keep horses or cows".

Absolutely right, and I know of neighborhoods in which the dawn was greeted by a rooster or two until recently. Dog fights have a long "tradition" here, and were maybe, I cannot be certain, brought in by Ozark folks (known as "hoosiers," a term that eventually was applied to poor whites generally) in the early 20th century. Some corner saloon buildings still extant carry with them tales of dog fights out back or in their basements. Such memories, though, are rapidly being lost as there is no continuity of regulars to convey them, many of those wonderful old joints have been shuttered, and those that have been gentrified, well, that term should be expanded to connote social amnesia. Draft animals were kept well into the last century; had you visited one of the poorest areas in St. Louis--and one with some of the oldest housing and virtually no modern infrastructure--Mill Creek Valley, both draft animals and barnyard critters you'd have seen plenty of, including milk cows. My suspicion is that enforcement of ordinances in St. Louis has been and still is inversely proportional to population density. Oddly, the more open space the more control. It is or should be well-known that the conditions in which urban draft animals were kept were horrific; I have found descriptions of stables in some of the city's wealthiest enclaves that included, among other choice images, paint peeling from the acrid urine-vapor in winter. Streetcar companies were abusive both of their employees and their stock.

Posted by Carolyn Kolb
One source of restrictive laws about the keeping of animals in urban areas was the progressive era crusade for pure milk. When laws were enacted about requirements for commercial diaries, the smaller cow stalls in town were legislated out of business.

As far as animal memories -- my grandfather had once been mayor of his town, Amite, Louisiana. Apparently Amite has always had animal presences -- there used to be a Ripley's Believe It Or Not item on Amite having the only law in the country forbidding camels running loose on the streets (a local wintering circus, perhaps?) At any rate, whatever the laws and however he interpreted them, my grandfather lived in the middle of town and kept a large hog in a pen, a flock of turkeys, quail, various chickens, and Eleanor the cow, so named because she was always roaming around.

Amite apparently has flexible ideas on zoning because within the last decade the folks who bought my great-grandfather's house were able to locate a mini-cemetery in the back yard and currently have two graves there. Coincidentally or not, the current mayor is a cousin of mine and the graves are those of his aunt and uncle on the other side of his family.

Posted by Joe Nasr
I located the section in the Fairfax County [VA] Zoning Ordinance to which I had referred in a previous message, regarding restrictions on the keeping of animals. I thought I would be provide the formulas that I had mentioned at that time. Here are some extracts from the section on the keeping of livestock or domestic fowl. The former are "allowed as an accessory use on any lot of 2 acres or more in size," wherein for each acre of land, one "animal unit" and one "bird unit" are permitted. An animal unit consists of: 2 head of cattle, or 5 sheep, or 3 horses, or 5 swine, or 5 goats, or 5 llamas, or 5 alpacas. A bird unit is: 32 chickens, or 16 ducks, or 8 turkeys, or 8 geese. Combinations of animals based on these totals are permitted. Note that "horses shall include ponies, mules, burros and donkeys," so the problem that arose in Annapolis would be caught here. Separate sections deal with "commonly accepted pets", dogs, honeybees, and pigeons.

My questions remain: Where did such formulas (rather than simply the limitations themselves) come from? How and when did they emerge? Did professional bodies such the American Planning Association and its predecessors, develop models? If so, based on what? [In other words, on what basis is one goose equivalent to a turkey, 2 ducks or 4 chickens?] Finally, did such formulas cross borders, and under what circumstances?

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