June 13, 2013

Backyard coops provide urban respite, generate cackling at city halls

By Randy Billings rbillings@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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Ruby Jenkins-Henry, 6, plays with her New Hampshire Red chicken, Minerva-Louise, in the yard of her Portland home on Thursday.

Maine Sunday Telegram photo by Gabe Souza

"The granite countertops are coming," quipped the 49-year-old psychiatrist, whose set-up also includes a brooding pen and a heat lamp for the chicks' first weeks.

Jenkins said she uses the chicken manure as fertilizer in the four 4-foot-by-8-foot raised garden beds on the 6,500 square-foot lot where she and her family grow salad greens, kale, tomatoes and the like. They use a rain barrel to conserve water, and they compost to cut down on their waste.

Goodman, who also plans to use chicken manure in her gardens, has never kept chickens before but decided to give it a try on her 6,800-square-foot lot at the urging of her 8-year-old son, Sammy, and 10-year-old niece Eliana.

Goodman said she will be getting her six hens next weekend. She is looking forward to the eggs, but she chose her chicken breed based on temperament rather than egg-laying prowess. She called the Buff Orpington breed the "golden retriever" of chickens.

Portland and South Portland have similar chicken ordinances. Only six hens are allowed per lot. Roosters, and their early morning crowing, are not allowed. Chicken keeping must be for residential, not commercial, use, which means residents cannot sell surplus eggs or manure, odors and noise may not be perceptible at the property line, and the chicken coops must comply with zoning setbacks. Limits also apply to the amount of chicken manure, which is a good source of fertilizer, that can be stored on site. Annual permits, costing $25, also are required. Slaughtering is prohibited.

Efforts to allow backyard chicken keeping have been spearheaded by residents. In Portland's and South Portland's case, those residents were young girls.

South Portland was compelled to consider — and pass — an ordinance in 2007 proposed by a 10-year-old girl whose family made a website, T-shirts and signs that begged, "Give peeps a chance" and organized other residents to attend numerous meetings on the subject.

The debate about the ordinance was intense, with opponents expressing concerns about noise, smells and rodents. but South Portland City Manager Jim Gailey said there have been few problems to date.

"Personally, I find it pretty neat to drive through neighborhoods and see chickens walking around people's yards," Gailey said. "I know this is common in the more rural communities, but in as dense of a community as South Portland is it brings a different twist."

In Portland, a 14-year-old girl who lived on Great Diamond Island successfully helped persuade the city to pass an ordinance in 2009. The meeting drew a large crowd, and applause broke out when the measure was passed.

City Councilor John Coyne was the only councilor to vote against allowing chickens back in 2009, because there was no enforcement mechanism, he said. Coyne said he has received no complaints since the ordinance passed.

The Portland and South Portland ordinances were passed at a time when backyard chicken keeping was grabbing headlines across the country. Most news accounts declared backyard hens a growing trend but never cited any data to back it up.

National chicken keeping statistics are scarce. It's also unknown how many suburban Mainers are keeping hens, because smaller towns don't keep track. Local businesses say more and more people are becoming interested in chicken keeping. The trend is most common among young families with children, and among retirees.

Lori Gingras owns the Augusta-based Roots, Coops & More, which offers a variety of hand-built coops, root cellars, goat sheds and raised garden beds. The business started in 2009 and continues to grow, especially in the realm of chicken coops, Gingras said.

"Our sales have been strong. It seems to be building more and more," Gingras said, noting the heaviest demand is in southern Maine. "We just brought a couple of chicken coops to Portland last week."

Chick sales also are booming.

Fred Rolphe, vice president of Paris Farmers Union, said sales of baby chicks have been growing since 2008, with a 10 percent jump last year. That growth shows no signs of slowing, Rolphe said.

"The growth is mostly in egg birds," he said.

Paris Farmers Union has eight retail stores in Maine, including one in Portland. The backyard chicken business is especially hot in less developed areas of the state, but growth is significant in Portland, too, Rolphe said.

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