Backyard chickens return to spotlight in Holyoke


Staff Writer
Published: 6/26/2020 6:51:31 PM

HOLYOKE — The city is again exploring an ordinance to allow residents to keep egg-laying hens in their backyards.

In a public hearing Tuesday, the City Council’s Ordinance Committee and the city’s Planning Board held a joint public hearing to consider the possibility of a city ordinance to allow backyard chickens as part of a broader review of the permitting process for community gardens.

The idea is one that has been debated previously in the city. An effort to pass a one-year pilot program to issue 50 licenses to keep backyard hens failed in 2010 amid pushback from some city officials and residents. Other nearby municipalities, such as Easthampton and Northampton, allow residents to keep backyard chickens under certain restrictions.

“As the maker of the order, I was approached again by community advocates who very much want to renew this idea,” said At-Large Councilor Rebecca Lisi, who chairs the Ordinance Committee. Lisi noted that current city ordinances only allow backyard chickens on property that’s larger than 5 acres or is zoned as residential, single-family agricultural.

“It’s very restrictive as of right now,” she said.

Nearly 20 people spoke during the hearing in favor of allowing residents to keep hens in their yards. Several others wrote their support in emails, while two other residents voiced opposition in written comments.

“I think this virus has shown more than ever how important it is to produce our own food,” said Guy O’Donnell, a city resident who said his family has happily kept hens in their yard.

“This is an issue that has been fought over and over again in Holyoke, and it appears this is an issue that has become one of class and privilege,” said resident Darlene Elias, another supporter.

The meeting began with comments from Sean Gonsalves, the director of Holyoke’s Board of Health, and Esteban Del Pilar-Morales, an infectious disease specialist and the vice chair of the city’s Board of Health.

Gonsalves and Del Pilar-Morales both spoke about the possible public health hazards and nuisances that could result from keeping chickens in backyards.

Gonsalves began by noting that the health board is not in blanket opposition to relaxing the current chicken ordinance, which he said is restrictive to homeowners. But he said that the board’s concerns are to make sure public safety is maintained from a sanitation and epidemiological standpoint.

“There’s a long list of issues that can arise from the storage of animals in confined spaces,” Gonsalves said, noting that chicken coops can attract predators including hawks, foxes and snakes, as well as mice and rats. “If this isn’t well-regulated, it will turn into a public nuisance.”

Among the specific concerns raised by Del Pilar-Morales was salmonella. In 2019, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified 1,134 cases of salmonella nationwide that were linked to backyard poultry, including 36 cases in Massachusetts. This year, the CDC has identified 465 cases, including eight in Massachusetts thus far.

Among the CDC’s recommendations to backyard fowl owners to prevent salmonella infection: washing hands; keeping poultry, and a pair of shoes to use when caring for them, outside; supervising children around the flock; not eating or drinking where the birds live; and handling eggs safely.

Del Pilar-Morales suggested there should be an expectation of cleaning included in any city ordinance, language about how to handle chickens whose owners abandon them, requirements to properly care for the animals, a training mandate for how to care for a flock, and standards for chicken coops.

Many of those who spoke during public comment acknowledged the need for regulations in an ordinance but stressed the benefits of allowing backyard chickens in the city. In response to concerns raised about the well-being of chickens raised in residents’ backyards, Jennifer McManus noted that many eggs purchased at the grocery store come from chickens kept in horrible, unsanitary conditions at factory farms.

“I want a nice, healthy, happy chicken in my backyard that I know is healthy because I raised it,” McManus said.

Others remarked that many common pets, from cats to turtles, carry their own diseases.

“It’s important to be safe, but it’s also not rocket science,” said Elizabeth Ramirez. “Our product we get is a lot safer for ourselves, our community and our planet than the factory farming food we eat now that’s very unreliable in these times.”

Elias noted that large portions of Holyoke are food deserts and that many city residents — particularly in the Hispanic community — don’t have equitable access to healthy food.

“Right now as we are meeting, there are mothers who cannot feed their children,” said Elizabeth Wills O’Gilvie, the working chairwoman of the Springfield Food Policy Council. “People who are dependent upon chickens for their food are going to care for them, keep them clean, and manage them twice as effectively as anybody who is trying to get a pet.”

Only two residents voiced opposition during the meeting, both in written comments. One of them, Paola Ferrario, noted that she knew somebody who had high lead levels in her blood after eating eggs from chickens she kept in her yard who ate lead paint chips. She urged proper regulatory processes, including testing of soil, completion of a class or exam, a no-rooster policy and coop inspections before chickens are purchased.

The public hearing was continued, and Lisi suggested that a working group would further study the ordinance.


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