Boston Residents Talk Chickens, Urban Farms

A slide from the BRA presentation on Monday, June 3, 2013.

Residents around the city are getting a chance to share their thoughts on Boston’s proposed new rules for urban farms, markets, composting and bee- and hen-keeping.

At the first public meeting on the topic, held Monday at Suffolk Law School in downtown Boston, the Boston Redevelopment Authority announced the dates of 10 additional meetings designed to gather community input about rules that could bring life to vacant lots and rooftops around the city.

The meeting was led by Tad Read, senior city planner for the BRA, and attended by Boston Chief Planner Kairos Shen, other city staff and members of the Urban Agriculture Working Group, which has been meeting for almost a year and a half to develop the rules outlined in Article 89.

“A couple of years ago there was a businessman in the city who wanted to start a lettuce farm, and he couldn’t do it because it’s not addressed in the zoning code; therefore it’s forbidden,” Read said. “He wasn’t the only one; there were other people who were following this national interest in urban agriculture and wanted to start farming in Boston and found they were meeting all kinds of barriers, primarily zoning. The purpose of Article 89 is to identify and address different agricultural uses so that they can be allowed or conditional, so that development can be facilitated in the city.”

The proposal is one of Mayor Thomas Menino’s key initiatives, and one he hopes to see carried through before he leaves office at the end of the year, Shen said.

“I know if the mayor were here he would talk about his chickens on Long Island,” Shen said, referring to the city’s first free-range chicken farm, located on Long Island in Boston Harbor.

In May, the BRA released a draft document outlining the new rules proposed in Article 89, which can be viewed as a PDF on the BRA website. The rules set the allowable size and location of various agricultural activities and establish a Comprehensive Farm Review process that would help ensure farms are “good neighbors” to other businesses and residents around Boston, Read said.

The Keeping of Hens

Much of the discussion at the first meeting focused on hen keeping, with members of the group Legalize Chickens in Boston and others speaking in favor of less restrictions.

Unlike other agricultural activities, bee- and hen-keeping are already addressed in the city’s zoning code, Read said, and each neighborhood has established its own zoning rules for those two activities.

Article 89 would not supersede rules set by individual neighborhoods but would establish guidelines—such as coop size and location and number of chickens allowed on site—for when neighborhoods decide to allow it.

“What we’re saying in Article 89 is that we want the neighborhoods to come to us and say that they want this,” Read said. “The BRA, the city, is not interested in going out into the neighborhoods and saying you should want this; you’re going to have this.”

But some felt the city should do more to let residents know how they can go about changing the zoning rules in their neighborhoods. 

Allentza Michel, community liaison for the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, said she felt it was a “chicken and egg situation, pun not intended.”

“If the communities don’t know there is an opportunity for them to step forward, they won’t step forward,” she said.

Michel said she particularly felt Boston’s “areas of color”—where, for the immigrant families who live there, raising hens is a traditional way of life—could benefit from more public outreach. In particular, she mentioned the neighborhoods of Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan, noting that those areas tended to have “less zoning flexibility” than some of the city’s more commercial districts.

Read said the 11 scheduled public meetings on Article 89 were designed to encourage that sort of dialogue and added that flyers about the meetings were being translated in other languages to encourage attendance.

He also explained why some neighborhoods were more restrictive.

The areas where bee and hen keeping is either allowed or conditional—including Back Bay, Beacon Hill, South Boston and Allston—are under the oldest part of the city’s zoning code, with sections that haven’t been updated since 1965, Read said.

“Other parts of the city—Jamaica Plain, Dorchester, Roslindale, West Roxbury—all those zoning districts have been updated more recently, and the keeping of hens and bees has been zoned out rather than zoned in,” he said. “The trend for a long time was, ‘Oh my god, we’re in the city; we don’t want farming in the city.’”

Others attending the June 3 meeting raised concerns about the use of pesticides in the city, the process for testing soil brought in for raised-bed farming and whether the new rules might discourage community garden projects by facilitating commercial farm development.

More Meetings To Come

The next community meeting on Boston’s urban agriculture rules, Article 89, will be held Wednesday, June 12 from 6:30-8:30 p.m. at Roxbury Community College Student Center, 1234 Columbus Ave., in the second-floor cafeteria.

Other upcoming meetings are as follows:

  • Jamaica Plain—Tuesday, June 18, 6-8 p.m., at English High School auditorium, 144 McBride St., JP
  • Allston/Brighton—Wednesday, June 26, 6-7:45 p.m., at Honan Branch Library, 300 N. Harvard St., Allston
  • East Boston—Monday, July 8, 6-7:45 p.m., at Maverick Landing Community Room, 31 Liverpool St., East Boston
  • Roslindale/West Roxbury—Wednesday, July 10, 6:30-8:30 p.m., at Roche Community Center, 1716 Centre St., West Roxbury
  • Dorchester—Monday, July 15, 6:30-8:30 p.m., at The Great Hall, 6 Norfolk St., Dorchester
  • Hyde Park/Mattapan—Wednesday, July 17, 6:30-8:30 p.m., at Municipal Building Auditorium, 1179 River St., Hyde Park
  • Back Bay/South End/Bay Village/Audubon Circle/Fenway/Kenmore/Longwood—Wednesday, July 24, 6-8 p.m., at Copley Branch Library (Raab Hall), 700 Boylston St., Back Bay
  • South Boston—Wednesday, July 31, 6:30-8:30 p.m., at Condon Elementary School cafeteria, 200 D St., South Boston

The city will also host a Twitter chat from 12-1 p.m. on Wednesday, June 19. Use the hashtag #UrbanAgBOS to ask questions and provide feedback on the proposal.

Residents can send questions and written comments to, or to 1 City Hall Square, Ninth Floor, Boston, MA 02211, Attn: Urban Agriculture.

SOUTH END PATCH: Facebook | Twitter | E-mail Updates

South End Patch