Guest column: Holyokers should be able to keep backyard hens — it’s that simple

  • Left, Devon Whitney-Deal, a volunteer, and Neftali Duran, the co-director of the Holyoke Food and Equity Collective, glean a field of squash in Hadley along with other volunteers. FILE PHOTO

Right now, Holyoke City Council’s Ordinance Committee is debating a question that should elicit a straightforward “yes”— can Holyoke residents keep backyard hens?

Countless communities, including major and neighboring cities, have simple policies in place that enable residents to raise hens because of the benefits they provide: nutritious eggs, rich compost for gardening, and a fun, productive and educational activity for families.

But many members of the Holyoke City Council persist in adding complicated, poorly researched and unnecessary requirements to the draft ordinance, creating a proposal that would shut the majority of Holyoke residents out from its benefits. These barriers would disproportionately impact people with the fewest means — the same people who would benefit the most from the increased food security that keeping hens would provide.

The rationale for these hurdles is based on a history of systemic racism within the city that has led to a series of assumptions about and lack of trust in the citizens the council is meant to represent.

Ten years ago, the Holyoke City Council swiftly rejected a similar ordinance. Now, they have an opportunity to make the right decision on this issue, and the timing couldn’t be more critical. The COVID-19 pandemic has increased rates of hunger by 47% in western Massachusetts — that means one in seven residents don’t always have enough to eat.

At the same time, we’re seeing a national reckoning with the systemic racism and the owning class dominance that continues to govern our lives. Even a seemingly simple question about backyard hens touches on these issues: Do Holyoke residents have sovereignty over their own food sources, and how they may use their own outdoor spaces?

The following prohibitive barriers to hen ownership were proposed at the Oct. 13 City Council meeting. In order to keep the maximum of just six backyard hens, residents would have to apply for a “special permit,” which involves submitting drawings of their property showing the proposed location of the chicken coop, which would have to adhere to restrictive setbacks.

Next, residents must send certified letters, costing about $7 each, to every household in abutting properties within 100 feet — and now Councilors Linda Vacon, Joe McGivern and Terence Murphy want this increased to 300 feet. Depending on location, this could require dozens of letters and hundreds of dollars. If any neighbor objects to the idea of backyard hens, the dispute would go to a public hearing. If no objection is raised or the dispute is resolved, the Board of Health would then inspect the proposed coop and site. All of this bureaucratic wrangling costs prospective hen keepers a permit fee of $20 — which, in addition to the inspections, is annual.

The barriers proposed here are punitive — for people who don’t speak English as a first language, for people who don’t already know how to send a certified letter, for people who aren’t literate, for people who don’t have $20 to spend on permits and hundreds to spend on certified mail, for people who can’t be available for an inspection during the Board of Health’s work week.

This proposal is out of step with the requirements in neighboring municipalities, like Chicopee and Easthampton, and in much larger cities, such as Hartford, Seattle and Los Angeles.

Opposing council members have expressed concerns about neighborhood disputes. Holyoke already has a robust system in place that allows residents to report issues to the city. Requiring advance approval from neighbors for backyard hens is overkill and places a costly burden on an already resource-strapped city and Board of Health.

Opposing members have also brought up concerns about disease from backyard hens. At the meeting on Oct. 13, Vacon stated that having hens will result in more disease. This unsubstantiated charge plays on stereotypes about low-income people and people of color, and it is indefensible that casual racism is able to go unchecked in public hearings.

We propose that residents be approved to keep up to six hens per residence, with no permits required. Buildings with up to four units should all be allowed to have one such coop, given they have the adequate setbacks. People living in larger apartment buildings could be directed to community gardens, which are also a part of this ordinance.

Numerous organizations, farmers, public policy officials, city employees, homeowners and residents of Holyoke have shown unwavering support for a reasonable local hen ordinance. Over the course of four public hearings held by the ordinance committee, only one public comment was read in opposition to the ordinance.

City councilors McGiverin, Murphy and Vacon have claimed that they have received emails in opposition to the hen ordinance, yet public comments have overwhelmingly supported the effort. And still, this simple proposal is bogged down because of systemic racism that continues to impact Holyoke residents, including assumptions that they cannot be trusted to raise hens responsibly in their own neighborhoods, in a moment when centuries of inequitable food and health access, and their impact on Black and Brown communities, cannot be denied.

Holyoke residents, please contact your councilors. Holyoke City Council, you have an opportunity to ensure equal access to this vital food source for all the residents of Holyoke. Please vote in support of progressive policies that will increase food access for our community. 

Jennifer Albertine, Neftali Duran, Chelsea Gazillo, Kara Nye and Margot Wise are members of the Holyoke Food and Equity Collective.
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