Thursday, June 10, 2010

Chicken Story

A Friend of Mine is letting neighbors keep a chicken coop in her yard. Given these difficult economic times and the increasing emphasis on locally grown produce and sustainability, I figured chickens would be pecking their way into city yards on a grand scale. Here in Roxbury, aside from that Friend of Mine, Garden Girl too keeps chickens. Curious about the rules for urban roosts, I started calling around to see how Cambridge, Boston, and Brookline handle animal husbandry. It turns out Brookline is the most progressive and forward thinking on the issue of farm or back yard animals.

Mr. Maloney of the Brookline Health Department explained that residents need to go through a process for the “keeping of animals”. There are zoning and health hearings where the keeper of the animal demonstrates that there will be a one hundred foot buffer between the animal(s) and abutters, that there’s a game plan for sanitation and pest control and there will be no nuisances - specifically, no noise and no stench. Keep the rules and your permit will be renewed annually. Though I was enquiring specifically about chickens, bucolic Brookline has seen permit applications for bees, horses, pigs, goats, cows, and pigeons (the last was denied)

Until recently, Mr. Maloney said he’d only seen about 5 applications in 20 years for keeping animals but that number has shifted to at least one call a month and sometimes more. He said that the reason for the increase in interest in keeping animals on premises is twofold. Economy entered into the equation for those people who boarded their horses elsewhere but were looking to keep them at home to save money. “Green philosophy and sustainability” is the second reason, according to Mr. Maloney, with more people interested in growing food on their own premises; using the chicken droppings for compost and organic fertilizer; and eating eggs fresh from one’s own yard.

Cambridge Inspectional Services Department transferred me to the Zoning Department where Sean O’Grady answered the phone. When asked about keeping chickens in a coop in a backyard he stated simply, “Livestock is not allowed in the city”. Though one could apply for a zoning variance he said that the last chicken request was denied. Cambridge has had a handful of chicken coop requests, Mr. O’Grady said and, “The city council’s been talking about looking at an ordinance (to address the issue of chicken in the city) but I’m not sure where that’s going”.

Finally, I called Boston. Three times. And I am still none the wiser about chicken coops, though a farmer friend informs me firmly that they are not allowed by city ordinance.

Boston, Call 1

The Department of Public Health, which had all the answers in Brookline, transferred me to ISD. ISD transferred me back to Health and I got a recording.

Boston, Call 2

Starting with the ISD Code Enforcement Division, I asked about the rules for chicken coops.

“Oh. I’m not sure. Hang on one sec. Let me see.” A moment on hold and then, “That’s the Building Department." Transferred to the Building Department, I got the Inspector on Duty’s recorded voicemail cause all the Inspectors are out on the road after 8 or 9 a.m. I didn’t leave a voicemail.

Boston, Call 3

This call started with the Mayor’s Office which transferred me to ISD which transferred me to Building Permits who told me it was her first time ever query about chickens and transferred me to the ISD Inspector’s phone where I, again, did not leave voicemail message on the machine.

Whatever the Boston rules may be, the Friend of Mine and her neighbors will operate along the lines established by Brookline:  no nuisances - so no roosters and a clean up plan for poop so there's no smell.


  1. For Requirements in Boston:

    16-1.8A Live Fowl, Farm Animals.
    No person shall keep any live fowl or other farm animals, except in accordance with a permit from the Division of Health Inspections, Inspectional Services Department.
    (Ord. 1991 c. 5 § 6) Penalty, see subsection 16-32.6

    Thomas Goodfellow, Asst. Commissioner
    Health Division
    1010 Massachusetts Avenue, 4th floor
    Boston, Ma 02118

    Tel: 617 635 5300
    Fax: 617 635 5388

    Monday - Friday:
    8:00am - 4:00pm

  2. A 100 foot buffer in Brookline? That pretty much rules out backyard chickens in the more dense parts of the town.

  3. Boston would simply have to come up with different rules.

    I think the biggest reason this won't happen anytime soon is that ISD is already incredibly overwhelmed and doesn't need yet another set of conditions to enforce.