A Chicken In Every Lot?
(from Maine Townsman, October 2010)
by Liz Chapman Mockler
COLLABORATION CORNER - This article continues a regular feature in the Maine Townsman, highlighting ways that municipalities work together to become more efficient and better serve citizens.
Municipalities across Maine, including some of the largest, now allow residents to raise hens and other small animals within city or town limits in what one planner called a modern-day “back to the land movement.”
South Portland, Bath and Belfast are among the latest communities to approve land-use changes to allow for urban agriculture, with a focus on raising hens to produce organic eggs.
Orono, Camden and Brunswick are examples of other major municipalities that approved in-town chicken operations within the past year.
“It’s a real fad, it seems,” said Jeffrey Nims, Planner and Code Enforcement Officer in coastal Camden. “It caught on fast.”
There, town meeting voters in 2009 approved a referendum, inspired by a citizens’ petition, that allows any resident, regardless of the size of their property, to raise up to nine “small animals” – chickens and rabbits mostly, said Nims, who retired in September after 18 years.
There was no noisy debate during public hearings and the question passed easily, he said.
Roosters are not allowed, for obvious reasons, and raising hens has not raised Cain in the town of 5,200 residents.
“We’ve had no complaints,” Nims said.
TIMING IS EVERYTHING
The trend toward home-grown eggs started only a few years before the nation’s largest food recall – bad eggs from the Maine-linked DeCoster egg factory operations in Galt, Iowa, last summer.
As of late August, the government had recalled a half-billion eggs traced to DeCoster, who received an unprecedented federal fine in the late 1990s for his poultry operations in Turner.
Because so much of Maine is already zoned for agriculture, the issue of small-time hen raising generally has not been an issue. In Camden, in 1992, residents could only raise small non-domestic animals on properties at least 2.5 acres in size. The 2009 vote removed the size requirements, since most in-town residents live on small neighborhood lots.
There are some restrictions, however. Nims said chicken farmers cannot slaughter their animals on their properties and they are banned from selling eggs or the manure they produce on a commercial basis.
Nims said he suspects some people may sell their products tor neighbors, though.
Other restrictions include requiring the hens to be penned at all times. They also are not allowed on front lawns.
Like hens themselves, the idea of raising fowl within city limits didn’t get off the ground in Waterville, according to officials. Maine Senate Majority Leader Lisa Marrache started the discussion when she asked for a zoning change to allow the practice.
But people in her neighborhood, and others around the city, said they were concerned about possible noise, stench and other issues that could result from urban chicken farms – however small and restricted. Marrache could not be reached for comment.
In February, Bangor City Councilors initially balked at allowing urban chicken operations but Dan Wellington, Code Enforcement Officer, said he expects the council will endorse some form of the idea later this year.
Bangor planners collaborated with Portland and South Portland, using their ordinances as models for drafting changes to land-use laws allowing residents to raise hens. Dog kennels are allowed within city limits in Bangor, so many residents asked why they couldn’t raise chickens.
In 1974, the city outlawed urban farming by banning livestock and fowl in all residential zones.
“The idea was indefinitely tabled by the Council,” Wellington said, “but I believe we will probably pass something” in late 2010 or in early 2011.
He said an ideal time to pass a new ordinance would be during the winter months to give residents time to plan their chicken operations and city officials time to develop a game plan should problems arise.
Wellington said some children invariably get chicks for Easter and then have no idea what to do with them once they grow into hens or roosters. What many people do, he said, is let them loose in the city forest or along the Kenduskeag Stream.
In one instance, someone’s rooster ran away from home and “took to crowing at the traffic lights. The neighbors were wild,” Wellington recalled.
People used to ask Wellington why he couldn’t shoot the wayward roosters and chickens. “You can’t shoot what you can’t see,” he said, noting that the critters are agile and it would take time to hunt them down.
Wellington said there are eight to 10 Bangor residents “pushing hard” for the change and he suspected that because of dog kennels, veterinarian offices and crematories within city limits, the council eventually will approve the idea.
As with other municipalities, raising chickens in the city will come with restrictions should the council pass an ordinance change, Wellington said.
Bill Morrison, a poultry health expert for the state Department of Agriculture, estimated that the number of Maine cities and towns allowing chicken operations has tripled in the seven years he’s worked for the department.
No firm figures are kept, so Morrison said his estimate is based on on-the-ground experience over the years.
Morrison said the state has no law or regulations regarding in-town chickens; it’s a purely local control issue. But he confirmed that most municipalities do not allow in-town residents to own roosters because they crow too much.
He said there should not be any sanitary or disease concerns from “backyard poultry” as long as people keep their hens away from wildlife, including wild birds, and practice good sanitation in the hen houses.
Morrison said some people consider their hens not only egg producers but pets as well.
“When I was a boy, chickens were chickens,” said the North Carolina native. “Now (some) people treat them like pets. Some even let them in their houses, which is something I would not recommend.”
According to Morrison, people are increasingly upset about reports of how large chicken factories treat the birds – such as cutting off their beaks and keeping them in small cages with little or no room to move.
Some don’t like the idea of buying eggs from chickens that have been fed antibiotics. One alternative is raising their own chickens, even if the cost is higher.
“It costs more to raise your own chickens for eggs than it does to buy them in a store, but people want their own eggs,” he said. “They want just enough to feed their families.”
SIX HEN LIMIT
Belfast City Planner Wayne Marshall does not expect a problem with the city’s new residential zone changes that will allow property owners to raise up to six hens in their backyards.
Marshall said the idea came from a resident, through the council and then to the Planning Board. He said there were no serious concerns aired about the idea when it was passed on Aug. 3. Marshall also predicted there would not be problems in the future if residents respect their neighbors by taking care of their hens responsibly and abiding by the new rules.
The zoning changes “were targeted to some densely developed residential zones” inside the Belfast bypass – in other words, between the major Routes of 1 and 3 and in the downtown shopping district.
Like many Maine communities, Belfast already allowed farming in agricultural zones. The changes were made so families could operate small-time and personal chicken operations in non-agricultural zones. The chickens are supposed to be raised for eggs, but city officials know that some people will likely kill the birds to feed their families, in addition to gathering eggs, Marshall said.
Under the recent Belfast zoning changes, chickens will not be allowed along the waterfront or in industrial parks.
“I think this is A-OK to do it,” Marshall said. “If everything is done well and people are respectful of their neighbors, I think there will be very few questions or concerns.”
Belfast officials also relied on ordinances from other Maine municipalities, including Brunswick, Westbrook and South Portland.
As with Camden, Belfast residents must keep the chickens enclosed at all times, meaning the eggs will be “organic” but they do not come from “free range” chickens, Marshall said.
Hens cannot run wild or peck around the front yard under the new Belfast rules. Roosters are prohibited in the residential zones.
Nothing changes for property owners living in agricultural zones, Marshall emphasized.
Belfast residents will be asked to pay a one-time $25 fee to erect a chicken house on their property. That permit may be transferred should the family sell their property.
Marshall said city officials were aware that a half-dozen families were already raising hens in residential zones before they made the ordinance changes. The Council and Planning Board gave them six months to comply with the new rules.
FINE IN FORT KENT
Kenneth Michaud, Fort Kent Police Chief since 1977, used to raise 50 roosters and other small animals such as geese and pheasants on his residential property. He gave it up because it became too much work, Michaud said recently.
There are many families in the northern Maine town that already raise chickens on their properties – even any town ordinance that the chief knows about, he said.
“There are five (homeowners) in the residential area” who are raising hens … but they say they’re pets,” Michaud said. “What are you going to do?”
Another homeowner raises baby goats, he said.
As long as the town doesn’t get complaints, “we don’t bother them,” Michaud said of the small-scale animal farmers. “We’ve had no complaints about chickens at all.”
Liz Chapman Mockler is a freelance writer and editor from Augusta, firstname.lastname@example.org