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Between the Lines: Egg on Their Faces

The not-so-great chicken debate leaves Holyoke city councilors a laughingstock after all.

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Thursday, June 17, 2010

This spring Tim Purington, city councilor for Holyoke's Ward 4, raised the idea of allowing city residents to keep a small number of chickens in their yards, with an OK from the Board of Health.

The idea would have put Holyoke smack in the middle of a trend; with more and more people embracing the idea of eating locally, backyard chickens have become a popular choice, in large cities as well as more rural areas. Locally, the Pioneer Valley Backyard Chicken Association has seen a dramatic increase in new members eager to teach their kids a bit about where their food comes from—and to enjoy fresh-from-the-hen eggs.

Purington drafted a proposed pilot program with strict guidelines about noise and cleanliness, distance from neighboring properties, and disease testing. Participants would pay a $50 registration fee to the city and would be limited to a maximum of six hens; no roosters allowed. Volunteers trained by the Board of Health would inspect coops for compliance with health and safety regulations. No more than 50 licenses would be issued during the year-long pilot program.

You'd have thought Purington had dropped an atomic bomb on the city.

Holyoke's attention-hungry chief of police, Anthony Scott, was among the first to jump on Purington's idea, dismissing the notion with snide comments and warnings that it would lead to underground cock fights. Next, the health director weighed in, predicting that the chickens would bring dire, if unspecified, health risks. City councilors—apparently unaware how many other communities allow chickens without the sky falling on them—whined that the idea made Holyoke a "laughingstock" and tried to kill Purington's proposal without debate, claiming it would keep them from doing all their really important work.

And those were the responses people were willing to put their names to. On the discussion forums at MassLive.com—an always illuminating, if often uncomfortable, place to track a certain level of public debate—posters used the cloak of anonymity to let fly some darker thoughts. A number referred to comments made by Councilor Diosdado Lopez, who noted that backyard chickens are a Puerto Rican cultural tradition—an observation that inspired a string of ugly comments about Puerto Ricans and the "third-world" feel they and their chickens would bring to the city.

Never mind that Purington's proposal had numerous, reasonable health and quality of life provisions in place. Never mind that, if the experience of other communities holds true, Holyoke's backyard chicken farmers would just as likely come from the middle-class families who, pushed out of the pricey housing markets in places like Northampton, have settled in the Highlands—and who, a smart politician might realize, are valuable votes to court—as from its poorer neighborhoods. In the end, the City Council's Ordinance Committee killed the idea by a 5-0 vote.

The fearmongers and bigots had spoken—and the City Council, apparently, was all ears.

Purington, to his credit, is not ready to throw in the towel. He and at-large Councilor Rebecca Lisi plan to draft a new proposal that would allow chickens to be kept at the city's community gardens—an idea that will likely also meet with resistance.

There are, without a doubt, legitimate reasons why a homeowner might get a little nervous about the notion of their neighbor setting up a chicken operation just over the fence from their kids' swing set. Will the chickens be noisy? Will they get into my yard and leave droppings everywhere? Will the coop stink in the hot summer? What if the owner gets lazy and doesn't take care of the birds?

But as countless communities around the Valley and across the country have demonstrated, those concerns can be addressed with adequate legal restrictions, such as those in Purington's proposed pilot program, and a little public education.

Unfortunately, in Holyoke, the discussion never got that far, thanks to closed-minded city leaders who are too willing to listen to the loudest and ugliest voices, and unable to recognize the many positive things that could come if they embraced the ever-evolving demographics of their city.

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