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Agawam resident pushes for legalization of backyard chickens

Date: 7/5/2018

AGAWAM – One Feeding Hills resident is making a case to local officials to allow backyard chickens in Agawam.

On June 26, Grace Murray wrote a letter to the mayor and city council outlining why she believes the town should legalize backyard chickens. She claims the animals should be treated in a similar manner to that of dogs or cats. Currently, Agawam law confines “poultry raised for table or commercial purposes” to agriculturally zoned areas. Monetary fines are in place for residents who violate the zoning ordinance, starting with a warning and then working up to $100 a day.

“Agawam’s founding fathers would be mortified to find us discussing the right to keep chickens in town,” she wrote. “Regardless of lot size, generations of families have raised chickens and farmed gardens to feed themselves, all absent of zoning oversight. Then and now, chickens help support a safe, local, sustainable food system.”

Backyard chickens, also known as “urban chickens,” are domesticated hens that are kept on residential lots as either pets or for the purposes of laying fresh eggs. The 21st century trend has become so popular that dozens of major cities have revised their animal ordinances. While exact numbers aren’t available, a 2013 Department of Agriculture report found a growing number of residents in Denver, Los Angeles, Miami and New York City express interest in getting chickens.

In her letter, Murray cited several reasons as to why she thinks backyard chickens should be allowed. She wrote:
• “Chickens are food-producing pets kept as companion animals. They have personalities, names and AARP cards that preclude them being invited to Sunday dinner. Most hens do not lay an egg daily; production rates depend upon breed, age, stress, lighting, molting and beyond.
• Chicken keepers view their coops, flocks and yards as a source of pride, landscaping, decorating and tending to their cleanliness fastidiously.
• Chickens boast environmental, educational and nutritional benefits other pets cannot: they provide chemical free pest control, eliminate disease transmitting insects, control weeds, and produce valuable nitrogen rich fertilizer. They are a living lesson to children that food doesn’t originate in the supermarket.”

She said she worked closely with Suffield’s self-proclaimed “Chicken Chick,” Kathleen Mormino, to research the above facts. Mormino is “an attorney by trade, accidental photographer, backyard chicken-keeper and beekeeper.” She also founded her blog, The Chicken Chick, which offers advice on how to raise backyard chickens.

Murray argued that because permits are not required for keeping horses, dogs, cats or rabbits, they shouldn’t be required for chickens. The Feeding Hills resident, who has owned several chickens for years, said the regulation of manure disposals and feed storage is unnecessary.

She also claimed that less than two chicken-related noise complaints are made annually, according to “town officials.” However, Town Solicitor Stephen Buoniconti said it’s difficult to accurately track how many complaints are made each year.

“I don’t think that gentle lady is in a position to state how many complaints come in because they usually come in from a myriad of sources,” he said. “Sometimes they’re made to the police department, sometimes to the building department, sometimes to the board of health and sometimes to the mayor’s office. So it’s hard to tell how many complaints we get on a regular basis.”

The chicken-enthusiast gathered 12 signatures from other locals, and is requesting a town meeting with the mayor and the councilors for further discussion.

Murray said the local government has been approached with this issue in the past, but has “brushed” it off.

“Stop paying lip service to being ‘farm friendly,’” she stated in her letter. “Either pass a sensible regulation that encourages families to grow their own food, regardless of lot size, or leave chickens alone and focus on complaints about barking dogs, abandoned properties and deplorable road and sidewalk conditions.”

While the city council president and the mayor were not available for comment, due to the holiday, Buoniconti explained that a change in law would require a “submission” to the Council.  

“There are quite a few developments and properties in Agawam that, although they have houses and look residential, are sometimes zoned agricultural,” he said. “Right now, chickens are prohibited in residential zones and to change that would require a change in the ordinance, which would require a submission to the city council and have it passed by the Council and the mayor.”

He added that he is not at liberty to speak on behalf of the Council in regards to whether they would consider having a discussion with Murray or not.

Reminder Publications will continue to follow the story.