Saturday, June 22, 2024

Loretta, foreground, and Rocky are two of the chickens kept by Susan and Robert Filene in West Cambridge. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Legal language that would allow Cambridge residents to keep chickens in their backyards went to city staff for vetting Monday, the third time in 13 years that city councillors have tried to get pet fowl welcomed in the city.

Neighboring Somerville has allowed for chickens since 2012, two years after Cambridge leaders were presented with a Cambridgeport co-op with chickens and ducks and began work on urban agriculture zoning. What passed seven years later, though, allowed for beekeeping but not chickens.

“The chicken-keeping movement sort of stalled out at that time,” city solicitor Nancy Glowa said vaguely on Monday.

From the perspective of the City Council, “there was supposed to be language about it, and it didn’t happen,” councillor Marc McGovern said, referring to putting in place regulations that allowed for the safe keeping of backyard chickens.

The Filenes in their West Cambridge backyard Tuesday. (Photo: Marc Levy)

In legislative terms, that’s a problem because “there was no ordinance around it, there was no supervision, there was no inspection, there were no rules, there was no guidance and people were doing it sort of quietly – as much as chickens can be quiet, I guess,” McGovern said.

The reason the need for chicken regulations has returned is not because of neighbor complaints about noise or anything else, though. It was because Susan and Robert Filene, of Chilton Street in West Cambridge, brought in city inspectors to make sure they were complying with rules when removing a backyard pool to make more room for gardening. Inspectors saw the coops and told the Filenes their chickens violated city zoning.

The Filene’ backyard places chicken coops among garden crops. (Photo: Robert Filene)

The Filenes face fines of $300 a day as well as $6,000 to $12,000 in legal fees to appeal the inspectors’ finding and keep their seven chickens – Rocky, Loretta and the rest. The dozen closest neighbors have all written in support, said the Filenes and city councillors.

“The only noise the chickens make is when they lay an egg – they have an egg song,” Robert Filene said Tuesday, watching the older chickens roam the backyard.

The egg song, which serves as encouragement for other chickens to lay, is “less volume than a bluejay, less than birdsong,” Susan Filene said.

Robert Filene and a chicken on Tuesday. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Meanwhile, the chickens run around looking for insects and mosquito larvae to eat, which is helpful to humans, and are good for around a dozen eggs a week. (Chickens lay the most eggs in their first year, which is why giant companies slaughter chickens when they turn 2; but the Filenes are not in it for the eggs.) The Chilton Street backyard is filled with tomatoes and other small crops fertilized with chicken droppings. “You can see how well everything grows with chicken manure,” Susan Filene said.

Councillor Quinton Zondervan, now one of a half-dozen councillors who have visited the Filenes’ home to see their backyard, submitted zoning Monday to allow for chickens with a call for staff input and a suggestion: that there be no enforcement actions taken because of chickens unless their keepers are creating a real hazard. “If we do decide to legalize it, these folks won’t be fighting the city in the meantime and incurring costs and being stressed out over it,” Zondervan said.

The city’s chief public health officer, Derrick Neal, told councillors Monday that a “practical and effective minimum standard” on coops and chickens is important to reduce health and odor impacts on neighbors, but regulations on pet fowl shouldn’t be “too strict,” because owners could be discouraged from seeking approval.

Strangely, Glowa then referred to Neal’s comments by saying, “as Mr. Neal pointed out, there are public health concerns.”

The Filenes and their lawyer are awaiting a date to appear before the city, they said. The council won’t be back in session until September.