Chicken and Duck Owners in Cambridge Lose Appeal

At a public hearing attended by over 90 Cambridge residents last night, chicken and duck owner Blake R. Brasher appealed a denial by the Cambridge Inspectional Services Department to keep his co-owned birds in his backyard as an “accessory use” of his existing residential property.

After nearly three hours of listening to opinions from over 20 Cambridge residents, the Board voted in a four to one decision to deny the petition on the basis that maintaining five chickens and ducks on the premises of 220 Putnam Ave. does not satisfy the definition of “accessory use” as stated in the Zoning Ordinance of the City of Cambridge.

As it stands, the ordinance defines two criteria for determining “accessory use”: the “accessory” in question must be “subordinate to the principal use” of the residential property and “customarily incidental to the principal use.” While the Board agreed last night that the first stipulation had been met, it spent the majority of the hearing debating whether the second criterion had been satisfied.

Brasher, who co-owns the birds with housemates Adam W. Fastman and Allison J. Fastman, argued that the “ownership of pets, even types of pets that most people cannot imagine wanting to have, is universally accepted as customarily incidental to residential use.”

Noting that the ordinance only provided a list of “principal uses” and not “accessory uses,” the Board questioned the extent to which the ownership of chickens and ducks was “customary” in Cambridge, which became the central topic of discussion for the rest of the evening.

Brasher provided the Board with a list of cities in Massachusetts, such as Belmont and Boston, that allowed chickens on residential lots—even if some required a permit. He also argued that “hen-keeping has a long history in urban settings,” citing that people all over the world have been keeping domestic ducks and chickens in urban areas for thousands of years.

Barbara M. Bryant, a Cambridge resident and owner of three chickens, said that she was having trouble understanding why chickens appeared unappealing as pets.

“I don’t understand how chickens can be singled out and discriminated against because they are different from other pets,” Bryant said.

Julie Wormser, a resident who would like to start having chickens as pets as well, said that chickens are a part of “community glue.”

Brasher said in an interview after the hearing that he was disappointed to learn that “if something is exotic, it is illegal in Cambridge.”

“Basically what I learned today is that you can’t do something unless everybody is doing it,” he added.

City Council member Craig A. Kelley also attended the hearing last night, though he did not take sides on the issue.

“We live in such a dense area, [so] it is a challenge sometimes to balance what makes every person happy,” Kelley said.

The controversy over the ownership over the birds first arose almost a year ago, when Marica C. Hamilton called inspectional services to her neighbors’ home for legal concerns. Hamilton also complained about the noises and smells generated by the birds, and possible health ramifications.

But last night, Hamilton was among the attendees who emerged from the hearing in high spirits.

“I hope that I can enjoy my yard,” she said. “I hope we can be friendly now.”

—Staff writer Xi Yu can be reached at xyu@college.harvard.edu.

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