Sunday, June 16, 2024

Some of the chickens kept by Susan and Robert Filene in West Cambridge, seen Aug. 8. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Cambridge is one step closer to resolving a monthslong fight led by two owners of backyard chickens after the Planning Board gave its blessing Tuesday to legalize the practice. One member, Lou Bacci, said: “It’s about time – make it legal.”

The ability to keep chickens still has a ways to go before becoming law. A presentation by city councillor Quinton Zondervan and board discussion clarified where the city’s zoning rules regarding hen keeping end and where Health Department authority begins – and the Health Department holds most of the cards.

The department’s passage of hen keeping standards would activate the zoning, according to the proposed ordinance. A Community Development staff memo says the Health Department will dictate minimum requirements for the coops, and zoning would outline maximums.

The proposed zoning would allow residents to have six hens, or up to a maximum of 12 with Health Department permission; roosters would not be allowed, because they’re too noisy. The hens could be kept only in a backyard, not a side yard or open space that abuts the street.

The zoning would require a coop – a solid, protected structure – and an attached run composed of wire in which chickens would spend most of the day. Though a requirement had been discussed to keep coops 5 feet from a lot’s property line, Cambridge would allow them against a wall or solid fence, since “we have a lot of narrow lots where you may not be able to comply with that 5-foot setback,” said Brian Gregory, of the city’s planning staff.

Though residents have worried about the chickens and their environment attracting rats, proper hen keeping – following guidelines such as those being discussed – doesn’t contribute to a rodent problem, Zondervan said, citing the experience of Susan and Robert Filene, who helped jump-start the city’s push to allow hens, and others.

“We certainly do have a big rat problem in the city, but that’s preexisting,” Zondervan said. People keeping chickens are “not really seeing any rodent activity in their backyards. By contrast, I don’t even have chickens, and I have constant issues with rodents trying to break into my backyard.”

The Filenes’ experience gave them the expertise to assess the proposed minimums.

Draft language requires that chicken coops be raised off the ground as a means of rodent control. Susan Filene said this was unnecessary and would create cleaning difficulties.

“Even with 6 inches, a chicken can get under there. It’s very hard to squat down and clean out a coop or under a coop where the space is 8 inches,” she said.

Robert Filene spoke about the issue of wire mesh width for the chicken runs – currently, the Health Department and zoning would require holes of less than one-half inches, a complication that goes against industry standards and would trip up anyone buying a coop from a store. “I don’t even know why it would be necessary,” he said of the standard.

Zondervan said he hoped the proposed height of 8 inches would be removed – or at least if the Health Department required raised coops, that zoning should include these standards to prevent confusion from two sets of rules. Zondervan said the wire mesh would likely not be covered in zoning rules.

The board gave a unanimous positive recommendation, with a note to make sure the zoning regulations were straightened out with the Health Department regulations.