When Danielle and Michael Richardson moved from the city of Cincinnati to West Chester a year ago, they thought it would allow them to raise more of their own food.

“We have a desire to have as self-sustaining a household as we possibly can,” says Danielle, who also homeschools their two children.

But their attempt at urban homesteading in the suburbs has run afoul of West Chester Township officials, who say their eight laying hens and backyard chicken coop violate the town’s zoning code.

George Lang, president of the township’s board of trustees, says he has nothing against the Richardsons’ chickens—three Araucanas and five smaller East Eggers—but he’s opposed the family’s plea to allow backyard chickens zoning code revisions.

“There are some people in the community for whom that is an issue,” says Lang. “They chose West Chester based on the fact we do have regulations in place that restrict people having poultry.”

He’s the swing vote on the three-member commission. Trustee Mark Welch has indicated his support for allowing chickens, and Trustee Lee Wong has opposed it. Lang, after initially indicating his support, joined Wong in opposing the Richardsons’ request in December.

Across the country, more and more communities are allowing residents to raise backyard chickens, honeybees and even small goats along with traditional vegetable gardens. It’s part of what writer Michael Pollan has described as the “Food Movement,” a grassroots effort that favors organic and locally raised food over industrial and genetically modified agriculture and living a more sustainable lifestyle.

It’s been fueled by a slew of online communities about raising chickens and books. At the educational Gorman Heritage Farm in Evendale, a course on raising backyard chickens is its most popular, says Chris Schuermann, executive director.

“We only have room for 30 people, but when we offered the course last year 41 showed up on a crummy, cold Saturday morning,” she says.

A number of area communities from Wyoming to Madeira allow chickens as long as they are not a nuisance. But others such as Blue Ash, Fairfield and Liberty Township only allow chickens on properties of an acre or more.

Jaime Bouvier, a senior instructor at Case Western Reserve School of Law, who’s researched and written about urban farming, says more than 80 of the nation’s 100 largest cities, including Cincinnati, allow backyard chickens.

“Curiously, many suburbs don’t, which doesn’t make a lot of sense if [you] think about it, because there’s more room in the suburbs,” she says.

Cincinnati Locavore blogger Valerie Taylor led a fight five years ago to overturn the city of Montgomery’s ban on backyard chickens.

“I decided to take it on because I feel people ought to be able to raise a little of their own food if they want to,” she says.

The city enacted a ban after discovering a resident a few doors from city hall was raising chickens.

“I attended every city council and zoning board meeting and wrote up a fairly extensive document answering every possible objection to keeping chickens,” she says. About a year later, council reversed itself and voted, 7-0, to permit chickens.

Since then, Frank Davis, who recently retired as Montgomery’s community development director, says, “It really hasn’t been an issue.”

Only a few residents have sought permits to raise chickens, and there haven’t been any complaints, he says.

In her “Chicken Manifesto,” Taylor debunked a lot of the arguments against chickens: Five chickens produce less manure than a medium-size dog, they don’t crow (that’s roosters), they’re not a public health risk, and they don’t attract more predators than wild birds and squirrels.

She also surveyed chicken-keeping regulations in other area communities and found an interesting correlation.

“The funny thing is in areas with higher property values, chickens are more likely to be allowed,” she says, countering the view that chickens lower property values.

Lang points out West Chester does allow chickens if a resident has three or more acres. “If you don’t have three acres, you can always go for a [zoning] variance,” he says.

Richardson says she rejected the variance route because it doesn’t fit.

“My argument is a variance is by definition asking for an exception to a rule and I don’t believe we’re violating a rule.”

She argues the town code is vague because it bans all types of agricultural activities including gardening and greenhouses.

Additionally, she says, the variance, if granted, would only include her chickens and there are many residents, including some in her neighborhood, who have chickens and support her but are afraid to speak out for fearing of being cited by the town.

Bouvier says much of the suburban opposition to backyard chickens and other forms of small agriculture grew out of the way suburbs were carved out as communities removed from commerce and other forms of production including agriculture.

“It was a status thing in the beginning to move into a community where you didn’t have to have any means of production around your house. There’s not much evidence that the kind of small-scale farming people are doing with backyard chickens, goats and honeybees causes a nuisance,” she says.

“The people who keep backyard chickens tend to be well-educated and they’re keeping them for ideological rather than subsistence reasons. They tend to be middle class or above.”

Lang says he tried to broker a compromise between chicken proponents and opponents, but changed his position after Richardson was unwilling to negotiate.

“There’s got be a happy medium for those who want that sustainable lifestyle and neighbors next door who don’t want poultry up against their fence,” he says.

Richardson denies she was unwilling to negotiate.

“We can’t have 100 chickens in the backyard, I get that,” she says. “We have to keep a clean coop. You have to a fence. You can’t have them roaming around the neighborhood. I’m in favor of regulating the way people keep chickens.”

She says Lang wanted her to accept a conditional use, which would require the support of her neighbors and the zoning board of appeals.

“George tried to pass that off as win-win, but if a neighbor doesn’t want me to have chickens, that’s not a win-win.”

Richardson says she’s seeking rules within the code that spell out what’s required to keep chickens.

“Then if someone wants to make a complaint, there’s a standard by which you can judge that complaint,” she says.

As for her decision to leave the city for the suburbs, she says: “I knew Cincinnati was the common sense capital of the world. I absolutely regret leaving.”