New Windsor councilman expands chicken discussion

Published 1:10 pm Wednesday, January 18, 2017

By Ryan Kushner

Staff writer

WINDSOR—Walter Bernacki is the man who helped launch poultry into a countywide debate.

Bernacki is long-time owner of hens, and an ordinance prohibiting chickens in R-1 residential districts in the town of Windsor became one of his dominant issues as he campaigned for a seat on the Town Council this year, arguing that the restrictive zoning should be amended, since townspeople, he found, were majorly in favor of owning chickens throughout the largely rural municipality.

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Though he ended up losing the chickens he kept on his own property due to the zoning, Bernacki won the election.

His first term officially began this month. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

It all started back in April as Bernacki, a fire lieutenant with Norfolk Fire and Rescue, began regularly attending Town Council meetings in Windsor, where he and his family have lived for 13 years.

“A lot of the wording I heard was ‘well I,’ ‘well I,’ ‘well I,’” Bernacki said of comments from council members during meetings he attended, noting that he felt concerns of the constituents were perhaps taking a backseat to the personal opinions of councilmembers at times.

So, with incumbents Durwood Scott, Greg Willis and Clinton Bryant running for reelection in November, and the support of his family, Bernacki decided to throw his hat into the ring as the only outside challenger, collecting signatures door-to-door and getting his name on the ballot by June.

“And it wasn’t a week later that there was an anonymous complaint that my daughter had some chickens,” Bernacki said, chuckling at the timing of the grievance.  

Bernacki and his wife, Gail, homeschool their daughter Sierra, 17, who for several years had kept roughly 10 chickens in a pen located in the back of their Johnson Avenue home as pets, according to Bernacki.

Bernacki’s house is situated right across the road from a sizeable piece of farm land, but was still zoned R-1 Residential, where chickens are prohibited by what has become known by some as the “chicken ordinance.”

The family hadn’t received any complaints about the chickens in the past, and many other homes in the area continue to keep poultry despite the ordinance, according to Bernacki.

Still, Bernacki saw the complaint as an opportunity for Sierra and himself.

“What a perfect way to learn about government,” he said. 

The two began investigating the zoning ordinance, and drafted an amendment permitting chickens in the residential district with some restrictions (keep hens penned in, no roosters, no more then 10 hens and keep pens clean), which they then submitted to the town as a proposal in July, according to Bernacki.  

But council members showed little interest in their opinion on the matter, according to Bernacki.

“It just further frustrated me as I assisted her in that process,” Bernacki said of his daughter’s research and proposal. “Big cities can have them. We’re a rural farming community, and you are saying ‘no’ because you don’t want it?”

Though the Planning Commission ultimately declined to move forward with he and his daughter’s amendment proposal, Bernacki continued to be a vocal advocate of amending a similar ordinance that prohibited chickens on properties zoned A-1 agricultural as well.

In his correspondence with the town and public comments during town council meetings, Bernacki repeatedly cited the Virginia Right To Farm Act, a law passed in 1995 that prevents municipalities from issuing “unreasonably” restrictive ordinances regarding farming or forestry practices within an agricultural district.

Ultimately, along with a recommendation from the Planning Commission, the Town Council voted in September to change the chicken ordinance for properties zoned A-1 agricultural, providing they are 5-acres or larger, and all chicken cages are a minimum of 50 feet from the property line and 100 from any non-agricultural property.

“The present outright ban on poultry could be viewed as an unreasonable restriction for an A-1 agricultural district,” a memorandum to the Town Council from the Planning Commission stated.

Still partially unsatisfied with the continued restrictions in the A-1 agricultural district and his own, the issue served to further motivate Bernacki in his pursuit of a seat on the Council.

“If I was running into that issue with the Town Council not listening to me, what else were they not listening to the community on?” Bernacki said.

But the impact of the Bernackis’ proposed ordinance amendment didn’t end there. Not long after it was tabled by the Windsor Planning Commission, Bernacki said he was contacted by Isle of Wight County Board of Supervisors Windsor District Representative Joel Acree, who is also a friend of his, regarding their written amendment proposal.

Acree, interested in addressing the poultry issue at the county level, asked for a copy of the proposal Bernacki and his daughter had drafted back in July, according to Bernacki.

“That started the snowball effect,” Bernacki said.

Currently, chickens are only allowed in areas zoned rural agricultural conservation in Isle of Wight County.

As the ordinance makes its rounds on the Board of Supervisors’ agenda, Bernacki said it is an issue he hopes will be brought up again as he starts his term on Windsor Town Council this month as well, including the $800 fee to appeal an ordinance, which Bernacki referred to as “financial bullying” on the part of the town.

“I think that the current town board handled that inappropriately, and that it may be something in the very new future that either one of them or myself might bring up again,” Bernacki said of the chicken ordinance.

But as Bernacki takes his seat on the council, there are other sizeable issues at stake as well.

The projects ahead of the Windsor Town Council are numerous and expensive, including a new municipal building, sidewalks and a town center, not to mention the proposed Route 460 project, which Bernacki campaigned strongly against.

Bernacki said the council will meet and prioritize the projects to see which are most pressing and which can be set aside, and said he is currently being brought up to speed on everything by Town Manager Michael Stallings.

Bernacki won a seat on the town council election with 582 votes, the second highest amount after Scott, who had 682. Greg Willis was also reelected with 530 votes, and Bryant lost his seat with 492 votes. There were nine write-ins.

In the end, Bernacki credits his election victory to his persistence in going door-to-door around the town and talking face-to-face with constituents about issues that concern them.

Of all the homes in Windsor, Bernacki said he reached almost every one, missing only about 60 or 80 doors during his campaign.

“It’s not that disconnect where you just toss out a flyer to someone, or they see your name on a board,” said Bernacki. “I wanted to hear from them. That’s how I know how to do my job.”

Bernacki likewise said he hopes his vote and consideration of the upcoming decisions that face the council will more closely reflect what the people want.

“Every voice should be heard,” said Bernacki. “That’s how it’s supposed to work.”  {/mprestriction}