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Mecklenburg County, where the livestock roam free

SoVaNow.com / January 16, 2013
To fence or not to fence, that is the question … for three local women, anyway, who are tired of neighboring livestock traipsing over their property.

Brenda Jones and neighbors Shirley Jackson and Blanche White appeared before the Mecklenburg County Board of Supervisors on Monday to make what they thought was a simple request: “Can we force our neighbor to fence in her livestock?”

The neighbor allows her menagerie of geese, pigs, llamas, horses and goats to wander the neighborhood, destroying gardens and dropping feces in their wake, the women told supervisors.

The answer, much to their dismay, is there’s nothing anyone can do to require the fencing in of livestock — at least not until the county changes its ordinance.

The women were as surprised as several members of the Board of Supervisors to learn about the history of one of Virginia’s more arcane laws — its “Fence-Out” provision.

Back in the 18th century when Virginia began to lay down its General Laws, agriculture-friendly areas enacted what became known as “Fence-Out” laws. In these counties, a landowner who does not wish to have a neighbor’s livestock encroach on his property must take it upon himself to construct a fence to keep out livestock.

Mecklenburg is a “Fence-Out” county; so are Brunswick, Charlotte and Lunenburg. Halifax is a “Fence-In” county.

Virginia’s fencing laws can be peculiar even when it comes to public roads. While a livestock owner who knowingly permits his stock to enter a public road is most likely responsible if the animals causes an accident — regardless of whether the locality is a “Fence-Out” locality — the law expressly allows livestock to graze or be pastured in any “right-of-way of any road in any system of state highways” as long as the animals are “securely tied or held by chain or rope so as to prevent such animal from getting on the traveled portion of the highway.”

What’s more, livestock can travel or graze on any road or right-of-way, even if untethered, “while it is under the control of a responsible drover or drovers,” or on secondary roads that are gated and carry fewer than fifty vehicles per day. A drover is an experienced stockman, who moves livestock on foot.

Upon hearing the details of fencing law, Board Chairman Glenn Barbour immediately asked County Administrator Wayne Carter to find a way to change the law and make Mecklenburg a “Fence-In” county. “You need to take responsibility for your own livestock and it should not be on your neighbors to take care of that,” said Barbour.

Carter said Mecklenburg County would need to amend its existing ordinance to make the change and promised to have a proposed amendment to advertise for public hearing available by the next meeting.

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