June 13, 2013

Backyard coops provide urban respite, generate cackling at city halls

By Randy Billings rbillings@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND — Michela Jenkins grew up on a farm in Prospect, where her family kept chickens. In 2003, she moved to a home less than a block off busy Brighton Avenue in Portland. Although she loved living in the city, a piece of her longed for the rural life.

click image to enlarge

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

So in 2012, Jenkins and her family joined the ranks of Maine's urban chicken farmers.

"We thought getting a chicken coop would bring a little country into our lives," said Jenkins, a 35-year-old special-education teacher.

Last week, her 6-year-old daughter, Ruby, and 3-year-old son Ellis, took one of the chickens — a New Hampshire red named Minerva Louise — out of the coop and played with the hen as though it was a member of the family.

"I like the chickens more than eggs," Ruby said.

Backyard chicken farming arrived in Maine cities about five years ago, when communities from South Portland to Bangor debated whether to allow the practice in urban settings. Supporters said chicken keeping was part of the sustainable living movement, providing a source of fresh eggs while teaching children about where their food comes from. Opponents cited concerns about potential foul smells and chicken noises degrading the quality of life.

Five years later, there is a small but dedicated community of city-dwelling chicken owners, and scarcely a peep about problematic urban chickens. While roosters remain exiled to rural farms, laying hens seem to have settled into the urban fabric of population-dense neighborhoods in Portland, South Portland, Westbrook, Saco and Auburn.

"I am not aware of any significant problems with respect to backyard chicken keeping in Portland," said Trish McAllister, the city's neighborhood prosecutor, whose assessment was echoed by others.

Other cities, such as Bangor and Lewiston, considered allowing egg-laying backyard hens in dense residential neighborhoods, but ultimately decided against it, keeping chickens in agricultural zones.

The issue was hotly debated in Lewiston. Gil Arsenault, Lewiston's director of planning and code enforcement, said officials decided against allowing urban chickens because they feared the chickens would create too many problems.

"The net effect would (have been) more negative than positive by a substantial margin," Arsenault said.

Portland and South Portland are the most densely populated communities in Maine. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, Portland had 3,106 people per square mile, while South Portland had 2,085 people per square mile.

It's difficult to say exactly how many people actually are keeping chickens in those communities, since not everyone gets the required permits, and code officers do not actively patrol for rogue chicken coops.

According to city records, Portland — a city of about 66,000 people — has 30 residents permitted to keep chickens. South Portland — a city of 25,000 — has 29 residents permitted to keep the birds.

By all accounts, those who keep chickens are passionate about it. Some spend hundreds of dollars on their henhouses.

Augusta-based Roots, Coops & More offers custom-made coops that can approach $2,000 each. National retailers such as Williams-Sonoma also have gotten into the chicken coop business, offering similarly priced and designed coops for America's growing flock of suburban and urban chicken farmers. But when it comes to luxury chicken coops, Neiman Marcus rules the roost. The retailer offers a $100,000 coop that is inspired by the Palace de Versailles in France. The multilevel coop comes with a nesting area, a living room, a broody room, a library with books, two grazing trays and a chandelier.

Portland resident Jenkins, who is married and has two children, spent about $400 on a prefabricated chicken coop.

Madeline Goodman, who lives in Portland's Back Cove neighborhood, spent at least $800 on her chicken set-up — a bight red 4-foot-by-6-foot barnlike coop with a green metal roof and linoleum flooring on the inside. The coop, which is wired for electricity and has two windows, sits on top of a 12- to 16-foot enclosed chicken run.

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