Although urban farming is enjoying its moment, Boston has probably always had at least a few chickens in its boundaries throughout its 385-year history. Boston zoning has created a patchwork quilt of a map, with small pockets of neighborhoods where farm animals are allowed, or at least where there’s a chance to seek a special dispensation for farm animals from the zoning board.
In most areas of the city, chickens are flat-out banned, but that hasn’t stopped some residents from keeping them anyway. The intrepid rulebreakers have worried about their broods. If a neighbor drops a dime, an animal control officer could show up and cart the chickens away.
Longtime Roslindale resident Steve Gag was one of the few rulebreakers who went public about their chickens. He gave tours of his garden and brought the chickens down to the local farmers market for a petting zoo. The birds may have had friends in high places; Gag used to work in the administration of Boston Mayor Tom Menino, and the former mayor would inquire after the birds’ health.
“He and I used to joke about it,” Gag says. “If [Animal Control] wanted to make an example of me, they would know exactly where to get to me.”
His chickens were never confiscated, but it may have been more than just a case of being connected. Gag has an unusually large backyard for Boston, big enough to hold large community gatherings, and big enough so chickens don’t have to mill near the property line. The lot is bordered on the backside by Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum, which also helps. And, perhaps most importantly, Gag has gotten buy-in from some in his neighborhood. He shares chicken-rearing duties, and eggs, with two families. He says there are two important rules to raising chickens in an urban environment.
“You really need to make sure your neighbors are on board,” he says. “And never get a rooster in the city.”
A few years ago, Gag’s brood served as poster fowl for a movement to legalize urban chickens in the metropolitan area. While Somerville opened up its borders to chickens completely in 2012, Boston instead opted to pass Article 89, which established minimum standards for a coop, and spelled out how far back the coop must be from property lines and neighboring houses. It also spelled out a 7-step process to get zoning changed to allow chickens in a neighborhood, a process that sounds complicated even in the city’s “Article 89 Made Easy” document.
Although Gag’s chickens are accepted by his neighbors, he has never sought to get the zoning changed to allow for chickens. He’s concerned about the process, which requires approval of the greater community. Pro-chicken turnout would be key for such a measure to pass, and it feels like too much of a roll of the dice for him.
“It’s an inexact science,” Gag says. “How do you gauge community approval for this?”
After the initial buzz on urban farming has died down, some urban communities are taking stock of how new chicken-keeping rules and regulations are working, and some suburban communities are debating if they need to put rules in place for backyard fowl.
Somerville has had the longest to assess the effects of these rules. In 2012, it became the first community in the Commonwealth to lay out regulations for keeping chickens in an urban environment. Under the community’s chicken law, residents must apply for a permit, pay a small fee, and watch a video on the ins and outs of chicken-rearing. Residents also must tend to their own chickens (not subcontract the care out), roosters are a no-no, and noise must be kept to a minimum. In the tone of the rollout of the law, the city made clear that it wasn’t just regulating chickenkeeping, but encouraging it.
Somerville wasn’t the first municipality in the United States to regulate urban chicken-keeping; the law’s writers looked to ordinances in Minneapolis and Pittsburgh for guidance, says Doug Kress, director of Health and Human Services for the city. Somerville did, however, become a focal point for the debate over urban gardening. Many watched to see if something dramatic would happen. It hasn’t, says Kress.
“We didn’t know what was going to happen,” Kress says. “To be honest, it’s been very quiet.”
How quiet? Currently, the city has just 8 registered backyard chicken owners, according to Kress. Of course, it’s hard to tell the actual number of Somerville residents who keep chickens, as many might simply keep their flock clandestine. In a 2013 Edible Boston article, Somerville chicken owner John Ringeling estimated that there probably was a chicken owner on every street of the city. There is even enough chicken traffic, apparently, to keep a Somerville chicken-sitting and consulting business going.
But if there are a lot of bandit coops in Somerville, it’s not ruffling many feathers. Kress says there have been very limited complaints about chicken smell or noise. This doesn’t surprise him. He says Somerville residents, most of whom live on lots with very small backyards, have gotten used to thinking about their neighbors.
People in Somerville, he says, “are very conscious about what they’re doing and how they go about doing it.”
Being conscientious might only carry a chicken owner so far if there is a conflict with a neighbor. Shortly after Salem resident Michelle Conway began to keep chickens in her backyard, she found herself in trouble with the city and with her neighbors. At issue is whether Conway’s chickens have been impacting the health of the abutting landowners. According to Salem News reports and a website to raise money for Conway’s legal defense, she has had to defend herself in court and before the zoning board and the board of health. Attempts to reach Conway or her neighbors, the Cordys, for comment were not successful. In a letter posted on the fundraising site, Conway says she feels hounded.
“They constantly video tape (sic) me, photograph me, and file unsubstantiated complaints to every city department,” she says.
When this conflict began, Salem had minimal zoning in place either prohibiting or sanctioning chickens within city limits. This might seem like a win for people wanting to keep chickens, but the lack of clarity proved a detriment to Conway’s case, as she was forced to defend herself against a zoning fine by the building inspector, who said she was involved in a commercial farming operation too close to her property line. She contends the chickens are more like pets.
The Salem Board of Appeals eventually overturned the building inspector’s decision, a Superior Court judge turned back an injunction against the ruling, and the municipality passed a chicken ordinance clarifying the law in response to the case. Despite these victories, Conway still (as of May 2015) has had to defend herself against a complaint before the Salem Board of Health. It’s quite a saga for someone who has stated that she wanted to raise chickens to have a humane and healthy source for eggs.
Just a few miles up Route 128 in Gloucester, things have played out very differently. Within its limits, Gloucester can be both spread out and densely populated, but there really isn’t any backyard chicken ordinance on the books. According to a report in the Newburyport News, a complaint was raised against some chickens being kept in a small downtown lot. In response, City Councilor Melissa Cox floated the idea that it might be time to regulate chicken-keeping. The idea was met with stiff resistance from many residents, and even Cox backed off from it when she better understood the particulars of the case.
Greg Verga, another Gloucester City Councilor, says that regulations weren’t needed to address an individual case where the location wasn’t a good fit for keeping chickens. Instead, everyone would have been better served if neighbors could have discussed matters before it really became an issue.
“Someone should have just knocked on the door,” Verga says.
Verga is in a unique position to see both sides on this, since he keeps his own flock of fowl in a more rural part of Gloucester. A proponent of backyard chicken-keeping, he still believes that even if you have the right to keep birds, you should think of your neighbors and communicate with them frequently about any issues that may arise.
For him, this has even meant taking preemptive action. Once, he bought two geese of a breed he knew little about, only to discover that they were noisy. He says he arranged to give them to someone else; it felt like the neighborly thing to do.
“My neighbors never complained, but I just didn’t want to have to have them complain,” Verga says. And that sentiment, more than regulations, might determine the success or failure of urban chicken-keeping in eastern Massachusetts going forward.