Not coming home to roost

A bid to keep backyard chickens is not really flying in Arlington

PHOTOS BY JONATHAN WIGGS/GLOBE STAFFGale Pryor, who keeps hens at her Belmont home, says she has been inundated with calls from friends in other towns who want to start their own coops. PHOTOS BY JONATHAN WIGGS/GLOBE STAFFGale Pryor, who keeps hens at her Belmont home, says she has been inundated with calls from friends in other towns who want to start their own coops. (Photos By Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)
By Christina Pazzanese
Globe Correspondent / April 25, 2009
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All Pam Callaway wants are some fresh eggs and perhaps some good fertilizer for her garden. But her seemingly modest proposal, to get town officials to allow homeowners to keep chickens in their backyard, is causing quite a flap in Arlington.

Leading a group of about 10 egg enthusiasts, Callaway wants to change town bylaws so that residents would be allowed to have up to six hens - no roosters, thank you - in their backyard. She has sponsored two warrant articles at Town Meeting, which begins next week.

"I'm really interested in sustainable living and sustainable food production," said Callaway, a native of North Carolina.

She and her husband were drawn to Arlington two years ago in large part because of the vibrancy of a seasonal farmer's market in Arlington Center.

But not every community is as welcoming to livestock as it is to the vegetable plot. Despite the growing movement to eat locally produced food, neither Boston nor Cambridge allows homeowners to keep chickens or other farm animals.

Brookline, Belmont, Lexington, and Newton allow them, provided that residents obtain a permit, submit to regular inspections, and follow strict guidelines. Even so, there are sometimes complaints, as when a Newton resident took umbrage at the four exotic chickens clucking next door.

But aspiring backyard farmers are on the rise.

Gale Pryor of Belmont, who is in her third year keeping hens, said she has been inundated lately with calls from friends in other communities who want to start their own coops. Most are inspired by the idea of eating locally and an increased environmental awareness over the carbon footprint that agribusinesses leave behind.

"Everyone wants chicks," said Pryor. "This spring is crazy; it's definitely the thing. People tell me, 'I want to be part of a cycle,' "

Next month, both the Codman Community Farm and Drumlin Farm in Lincoln will offer classes in tending to backyard chickens.

Callaway thought having a few chickens in the small backyard of her two-family condominium in Arlington would be a nice way to help feed the garden naturally and get some fresh eggs year-round.

"I thought it would be cool, and then I found out it was against the law," she said.

Callaway said her plan is modest: Keep two or three chickens in a colorful, prefabricated pod called an Eglu. She said that her upstairs neighbor is not thrilled with the idea, but that other neighbors have offered to keep the hen house in their yard.

In late March, however, the Board of Health voted unanimously to oppose Callaway's request. In a memo to selectmen, the board cited the town's dense population and small lots as a recipe for increased noise and odor complaints, as well the potential risk of avian flu.

Callaway says she thinks the board's objection stems less from public health dangers and more from the additional burden of monitoring hen-keeping.

"It's not going to be as much work as they think," she said. "They're just looking at the worst-case scenario."

Apparently impressed with Callaway's presentation earlier this month, the selectmen have asked health officials to take another look at the proposal, said Christine Connolly Sharkey, director of health and human services. She said Health Board members will be "very hard to convince."

But officials in several suburbs where chickens are permitted say the birds are generally not a problem.

Newton has more than 20 chicken coop permits citywide, most clustered in the village of Nonantum, where bird-keeping and rabbit-keeping have traditionally been popular among Italian-Americans, said David Naparstek, commissioner of health and human services. A couple of years ago, the city did have "an ongoing issue" with a homeowner who had four exotic chickens that were disturbing a neighbor, but the problem has since been resolved, Naparstek said.

Brookline allows residents to keep fowl or animals not typically deemed pets, including chickens, provided they get a permit, submit to regular inspections, and undergo a public hearing so that neighbors can weigh in. The town has issued permits to the owner of a pot-bellied pig and a local monastery with goats, said Alan Balsam, director of the Board of Health. Three residents hold permits for owning hens, he added.

Since Belmont first allowed residents to keep up to five hens just over a year ago, things have gone very smoothly, said Donna Moultrup, the town's director of health. So far, nine permits have been granted with little fanfare.

"There's always some worry there'll be some backlash from neighbors," Moultrup said. "We haven't had any issues. They thought it would perhaps draw more wildlife, but so far we haven't had any problems."

Callaway plans to meet with the Arlington Health Board on Thursday to make her case. "If the Board of Health goes against it, I think there would be little support for change" among Town Meeting members, she said.

If the measure fails at Town Meeting, Callaway said she will probably be back next year with a similar proposal and armed with more research to help win over skeptics. "This is part of a lifestyle change," she said.