Illicit chickens roost in JP’s back yards

February 17, 2012
By

(Courtesy Photo) Roslindale resident Benjamin Geffken is covered in chickens raised by neighbor Steven Gag last year.

Chickens may be legally welcome back in the City of Boston soon, much to the delight of Jamaica Plain chicken-keepers.

JP has a concentration of secret chickens—in back yards, basements and converted lawn furniture—as chicken-keeping is not allowed under the current zoning code.

But the growing interest in urban agriculture has pushed the city to re-evaluate its policies, and a new Urban Agriculture Initiative has started the process to change the code.

According to a 1991 city ordinance, keeping poultry in Boston is not strictly illegal—just a “forbidden use,” which could be allowed if a zoning variance is issued by the zoning Board of Appeals.

However, in the last 12 months, only one person has applied for that variance. It was not granted, Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) Senior Planner Jeff Hampton told the Gazette.

After a citywide meeting on Jan. 30, Boston’s administration is considering the possibility of changing the zoning code to allow for small urban agriculture operations like back yard coops and small farm stands.

A working group has been assembled to advise the administration, BRA spokesperson Melina Schuler told the Gazette. It includes representatives from JP’s City Feed and Supply and the Boston Public Market Association, which is headed by a JP resident. The complete list of its 22 members is available through the BRA.

The advisory group will meet on a regular basis to sculpt zoning, Schuler said.

“After they’ve developed a draft plan, it’ll be shown to the community in the fall,” she said. “There’s quite an extensive community process before any changes are made.”

At last week’s State of Our Neighborhood Forum, City Councilor Matt O’Malley, state Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz and state Rep. Jeffrey Sánchez all expressed their support for updating the zoning code in favor of urban agriculture.

It is unclear why chickens are banned. But neighbors sometimes complain of the noise and possible health hazards like avian flu.

During a JP New Economy Transition (NET) neighborhood potluck last month, a local chicken expert—and JP resident—spoke about the merits and challenges of urban chicken-keeping.

She agreed to speak to the Gazette on the condition that her identity would not be revealed. For the protection of her hens, she will be referred to as “Jane.”

“We ate a lot of eggs and loved the idea of teaching our children a simple lesson in sustainability,” Jane said. Her kids sell surplus eggs to neighbors, a concern also raised by opponents to urban chickens.

When asked how she keeps her chickens without attracting unwelcome attention, Jane replied, “Very carefully.”

“There used to be milk and egg farms all around Boston that delivered fresh products directly to one’s house,” she said. But as the city population grew, regulations on farms increased as mass production of eggs increased, leading to the chicken’s eventual banishment from the city.

JP resident Audra Karp had to send her chickens away after she was busted for raising them within city limits. She told the Gazette that Animal Control had spotted her coop while driving by.

“I think [the zoning code] is outdated. People are getting back into urban agriculture,” she told the Gazette. “It’s really important for people to know where their food comes from and how they can get it themselves.”

Karp used to live in Western Mass., where she raised ducks and chickens. Her chickens are waiting out their exile on Karp’s father’s property in Ashland. She said she was hopeful for eventual change in the zoning code.

“I think it’ll happen. People want it to happen. The officials are supportive of it. It’s a question of when,” she said.

Steven Gag, a Roslindale chicken-keeper, said that keeping hens is “one more piece to add to the puzzle of raising your own food and your living in your back yard.”

He and three home-schooled neighboring children converted a playhouse into a coop and added a chicken run. He is also invested in welcoming back urban chickens.

“This [issue] has popped up all over the country. Many towns around the country have legalized it,” Gag said. “If you’re raising a handful of chickens in your back yard and you’re taking care of them like any other pet, it should not be a problem.”

Melissa Ghareeb, barn manager at the MSPCA’s Nevins Farm facility in Methuen, told the Gazette that “keeping back yard poultry has become a big trend, following locally-sourced foods and so on.”

“Somerville and Cambridge already have ordinances in place” to allow chicken-keeping, she said.

Ghareeb made a point of emphasizing that keeping roosters in a city is a bad idea, as they crow throughout the day, not just early in the morning.

For more information on the BRA’s Urban Agriculture Initiative, see bit.ly/BostonUrbanAgri.