ORONO, Maine — With a nod to what they say is a national trend, members of the community development committee met Monday to refine the town’s regulation of backyard chicken flocks.
The current ordinance allows residents of Orono’s medium-density residential districts — which include most in-town neighborhoods — to keep just two chickens, assuming they’re pets and not livestock. But Town Council member Mark Haggerty said he has been hearing lately from people who are interested in keeping a small flock of birds for egg production and meat.
“It’s a growing trend,” Haggerty said, referencing recent articles in The New Yorker and the Christian Science Monitor. “It makes sense, with the economy and the move toward eating local foods.”
Members of the committee, a subcommittee of the Town Council, considered a draft amendment to the existing livestock ordinance that would have allowed up to six chickens — no roosters — per residence. Among other measures, it called for strict regulation of manure storage, stringent property-line setbacks, a $25 annual chicken-raising permit, and a $50 building permit for any henhouse or chicken pen. It would prohibit any commercial use, including selling eggs, meat or manure, and called for protections against predators and vermin.
Orono resident Bill Unertl, who lives on outer Essex Street in the town’s more rural agricultural zone, has been raising chickens for several years. Though his own flock of about two dozen birds would be unaffected by changes to the in-town ordinance, Unertl said at the meeting that the council should support in-town residents who want to keep small backyard flocks.
“I would like to see more people raising their food when they can,” he said. “It’s good for people to know about their food sources, and it’s a good education for children.”
In addition, he said, keeping a few chickens helps people learn about other aspects of nature, including managing predators such as foxes, raccoons, coyotes and fishers.
“It’s a rural experience you can have trouble getting these days,” he said.
Denise Card, who lives in the in-town neighborhood known as “Tough End,” told the committee that she raised four birds earlier this year for their meat. It took her seven weeks from the day she brought them home as chicks to the day she loaded their wrapped meat, fresh from a local slaughterhouse, into her freezer.
“I got 27 pounds of organic meat for $32,” Card said, “and that’s a really good deal.”
Card said she has kept chickens for two years now and has never had a complaint from her neighbors.
Both Card and Unertl said limiting the size of a backyard flock to just six birds is problematic, because most suppliers will sell only six chicks at a time.
“They’re good for maybe one or two years of laying and then you have to replenish them,” Card said. A larger cap would allow a flock owner to keep more birds in active production all the time, she said.
Council member Judy Sullivan said she wanted to proceed slowly to be sure residents are protected against unwanted odors and noise.
“If I’m buying a house in one of these small neighborhoods south of Mill Street and all my neighbors have chickens, I’m not going to be too happy if I’m not a chicken person,” she said.
After a lively debate, council members reached a preliminary agreement to raise the limit to 12 birds, eliminate the $50 building permit for coops less than 100 square feet in area, restrict the number of residents who can keep chickens and prohibit slaughtering the birds on the premises.
Code Enforcement Officer Bill Murphy was charged with drafting a new ordinance, which likely will be presented to the development committee for a vote next month.