NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

December 14, 2013

In Amesbury, much clucking over backyard chickens

By Mac Cerullo
Staff Writer

---- — AMESBURY – With its term coming to an end, the City Council has one last decision to make before fleeing the coop.

In what will likely be one of its final decisions before the end of the year, the City Council is expected to vote on a zoning amendment that would allow residents to keep chickens in their yards as pets and for egg production at its special meeting Tuesday night.

The amendment was proposed by District 2 City Councilor Christian Scorzoni, who proposed the ordinance at the request of a constituent so that locals would have the freedom to keep chickens at their homes like residents in many other communities.

“I filed the ordinance is because a resident in District 2 had reached out to me and asked that I file something,” Scorzoni said. “The resident recently purchased a property in the neighborhood and was planning on keeping backyard chickens, but was told by the town that local zoning doesn’t allow chickens as long as your property is below two acres in size.”

A public hearing on the issue was originally on the agenda last Tuesday’s meeting, but was tabled so that the Planning Board would have a chance to weigh in on the issue. The board will hold its public hearing on the potential zoning amendment Monday at 7 p.m., and the City Council’s meeting is scheduled for on Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. Both meetings will be held at City Hall Auditorium.

Scorzoni said he expects the Planning Board will want to work out logistical issues such as whether residents would be able to just buy the chickens or if they’d need to obtain a special permit first.

He added that Building Inspector Denis Nadeau has been approached and seems receptive to the idea, but would like a minimum lot threshold to be worked into the bill.

“He’s recommended a 12,000 square foot minimum lot size, just because he doesn’t want backyard chickens with very small footprints,” Scorzoni said.

If approved, the amendment would allow residents to keep up to six chickens on their property, and possibly more if the homeowner’s property is bigger than one acre. Specifically, residents would be allowed to keep the chickens as pets, for egg production and for fertilizer production, but on-site slaughtering for meat production won’t be allowed.

The proposal includes a number of provisions designed to protect neighbors from unwanted noise and odors as well. For instance, no roosters or crowing chickens will be allowed, chickens must be kept within a coop or enclosure at all times and unless it is being used as fertilizer, refuse must be disposed of weekly and it can’t be stored on the property.

The bill also includes language dictating minimum chicken coop and enclosure requirements. Coops must provide a minimum of three square feet of space per animal, sufficient ventilation and must be lined with organic bedding material such as hay, litter or sawdust, while enclosures must provide at least eight square feet of space per animal.

Coops and enclosures must be located a minimum of 20 feet from any habitable building, 40 feet from any habitable building on an adjoining lot, 40 feet from any well heads or open bodies of water, and 10 feet from property lines. They must also conform to all regulations pertaining to accessory buildings and be constructed and maintained in a safe and sanitary condition.

Also, if the owner of the chickens isn’t the owner of the property, that person will have to seek written permission from the property owner, and all feed must be stored indoors in secure containers to keep rodents and other animals out.

Keeping chickens in the backyard has mushroomed into a national phenomenon in recent years, driven by a growing interest among consumers in knowing where their food comes from and ensuring its quality. Numerous pro-chicken groups such as “backyardchickens.com” have sprung up, and a company called”mypetchicken.com,” which sells baby chicks and chicken-raising equipment, has catapulted into one of the nation’s 5000 fastest growing companies. Several cities -- among them Boston. Salem, and Springfield in Massachusetts -- have passed rules allowing them. New York City has one of the most lax set of rules regarding backyard chickens, and there are reports of hundreds of backyard coops throughout the city.

Backyard chickens are chiefly raised for the high quality eggs that they produce, which are said to be nutritionally richer and much better tasting than store-bought eggs from largescale farms. They are also voracious eaters of insects, including ticks and garden pests. Gardeners prize their manure, which is rich in nitrogen. There are hundreds of breeds of chickens available in a surprising array of colors, appearances and traits.

Numerous Amesbury residents already have chickens in their backyards. Chickens are typically kept at night in small buildings, called “coops,” and let out during the day into backyards or fenced-in areas called “runs.” Hens usually lay an egg every other day or so.

Scorzoni said he’s open to suggestions from the other councilors and is willing to amend the ordinance if certain issues need to be addressed. He added that he’s received a lot of positive feedback from residents and is confident that the measure will pass.

“This ordinance has generated a lot of ‘eggscitement’ in town,” Scorzoni joked.