More on chickens

Having to attend last night’s city council meeting for other reasons, I got to City Hall early to catch some of the Neighborhood Subcommittee Meeting on the proposed ordinance that would allow ownership of chickens within the city. There were 30 people in the crowd (I couldn’t see if any were in the balcony) but most of the speakers heard from last evening were opposed – strongly opposed – to this proposal. Plenty who supported the ordinance were also present, but the subcommittee was forced to recess the hearing before everyone could speak when the start time for the regular city council meeting arrived. Note the meeting was not adjourned, just recessed, so it will pick up where it left off at some future date.

As I wrote yesterday, I have mixed feelings about this proposal. Allowing ownership of a limited number of chickens is a trend sweeping across urban America so it’s certainly not some irrational, off-the-wall proposal. Common sense tells me that the canine maxim that “there are no bad dogs; just bad dog owners” has a corollary for poultry: “there are no bad chickens; just bad chicken owners.” One of the few chicken proponents who did have a chance to speak last night (I missed his name but will look for video of his remarks and post them when available) made an eloquent and very rational argument for the ordinance. He addressed the fear of disease by pointing out that turtles and rodents that are already legally owned as pets are much greater threats to human health than chickens would be. As for the accumulated waste, he explained that chicken droppings are composted and then used as fertilizer and that, since chickens eat recycled food waste from the household kitchen, they actually decrease the amount of waste that has to be placed in our refuse containers. He continued on in that vein, effectively making his points.

I confess to not knowing much about raising chickens which is why I’d like to learn more about the experience in other cities before forming a final opinion on whether it should be allowed in Lowell. I have owned a succession of dogs for nearly thirty years and so have a sense for what it takes to be a responsible animal owner. It is a lot of work and often a considerable expense, but I find it well worth it. Just as not everyone who owns a dog lives up to the level of responsibility required, I suspect the same would be true for chickens. (It’s probably true for children, too, but that’s a different issue).

There wasn’t a lot that I heard last night from the opponents of this ordinance that I found persuasive. While there was a lot of passion, there was also a lot of broad generalizations that communicated an unwillingness to even have a rational discussion of this issue and that’s too bad. After all, the city’s new Master Plan, recently endorsed by a unanimous vote of the city council, specifically calls for us to “support the creation and adoption of zoning and other policy that will encourage urban agricultural activities.” The draft of this plan which was circulated earlier even had a picture of a chicken to illustrate this point. Sensing the looming controversy, I assume, the city’s Planning Department replaced the chicken photo with one of a vegetable garden in the final version. Regardless, I look forward to the next meeting of the Neighborhood Subcommittee and the continued discussion of this issue.

5 Responses to More on chickens

  1. John Quealey says:

    When we came to Moore St.in1942 the the family next to us had hens and we would find an egg in our yard once in a while.We never had any problems with the hens.

    And on the Pow Wow tree.Over three hundred years?

  2. kad barma says:

    I also found the farmer’s comments to be important and useful, though I also found several of the opposing points to be reasonable and appropriate, too. (Though, as you observed, tougher to find amidst the hyperbole and fear-mongering, which is unfortunate). There is an absence of opinion on the record from both the Health Department and Animal Control, and these need to be corrected first. Secondarily, concerns for noise, smell and appearance must be accommodated in any potential ordinance. Lowell indeed possesses relatively few properties that would be appropriate for poultry. We need to consider a rule that isn’t permissive, but, rather, is directed at being restrictive, so that only appropriate circumstances are available to be used for those who have the interest, means and property to raise poultry. I love chickens, and would like to see an appropriate ordinance for them. I just know that they can be noisy (hens do more than cluck) and smelly in large groups, and chicken coops do indeed change the appearance of neighborhoods if they are too visible. We need rules that respect both property owners and their neighbors, and, so far, the two sides aren’t listening to each other well enough. Hopefully, this can be improved over the coming weeks.

  3. Sharon Sawyer says:

    I was surprised to find chickens were against the law in Lowell. For many years, when we lived on Methuen Street, an Asian family that lived across Bridge Street (ironically, just past the KFC) always had free-ranging chickens in the yard. I’ve also seen this in the Acre. Chickens are pretty low maintenance (we moved to the country and have had chickens). However, they can be stinky if the coop is not cleaned daily, roosters are very loud in the morning (but no louder than subwoofers in cars and late-night basketball games in the street). One thing, though, is that their excrement attracts rats, so any coops that are not cleaned frequently can become a public health problem. Urban chickens in my opinion should be limited to 6 layers, since that will keep any family in eggs. Chickens lay one egg every 27 hours. On the pro side, having well-kept and healthy chickens can provide excellent protein for families that may not have a lot of money for fresh eggs and other sources of food. Chickens are fun to raise, are surprisingly intelligent, and the amount of care livestock need teaches people not to waste food. There are pros and cons on both sides of the issue.

  4. DickH says:

    While the issue requires more hearings, testimony, evidence from communities that have adopted this already, that kind of stuff, I would think if the city decided to move forward with this, some kind of limited-time pilot program would be a wise approach. Set limits on number of hens (4 or 6, I suppose), ban roosters, set minimum lot size and requirements for coops, fenced in areas, setback distances from lot boundaries and other necessary regulations. Then come up with a dozen chicken licenses and do a lottery of all those who are interested. Monitor the experience of those dozen chicken owners for a year and then revisit the issue. If it’s problematic despite all the regs, then eliminate the program. If it’s successful and the current fears prove baseless, then slowly expand it.

  5. Bob Rafferty says:

    I was the farmer who got to speak in favor of chickens at Tuesday’s meeting. There are many issues that need to be addressed in order to make this ordinance work successfully. I have reviewed the draft of the amendments to the ordinance which was returned by the city law department and I don’t think it is nearly restrictive enough… as has been mentioned in the above comments. I’d love to address the greater public about more of the reality of keeping chickens in an urban community but my attempts to do so have been ignored by the Lowell Sun. There is a great deal of fear mongering regarding this issue, but the fact remains that keeping urban chickens is an integral part of integrated organic gardening systems that are sustainable. With a center for sustainability now present at U-Mass, and sustainability (as well as urban farming) clearly delineated in the Master Plan 2025 for Lowell (page 16, bullet point 9) you would think that the council would be apt to move forward on such an issue. I will continue to offer my support and expertise (I have over a decade of poultry farming experience) to the council on these matters as well as to educate the public. There is a large contingency dedicated to making this proposal a reality in Lowell, and I believe it can be done in a way that takes the concerns of those opposed into consideration.