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May 10, 2017

Hens may find new homes in Amherst



If Amherst’s town meeting next May approves a zoning amendment, Amherst residents might have some new neighbors. They might also have some fresh eggs.

The amendment, which is currently under active consideration at the Planning Board’s Zoning Subcommittee, would make it easier for people living in denser areas of the town to own hens, rabbits, and a selection of other birds including ducks, pigeons and doves.

Currently, a permit is required to own chickens and other small “accessory” livestock in those high-density neighborhoods surrounding Amherst’s commercial center. Should the changes be approved at the upcoming Town Meeting, Amherst residents in three additional zoning districts will simply be required to register their property if they wish to own hens, rabbits or selected other poultry.

John Gerber, an Amherst resident and a professor at the University of Massachusetts’ Department of Plant, Soil, and Insect Sciences, is leading the effort to amend the zoning bylaw. When Gerber endeavored to buy and keep five hens on his property, the town required him to complete a series of applications, field a visit from the Amherst Planning Board, and buy a permit that ended up costing a total of $210.

“I really thought that was a little excessive,” said Gerber.

Under the proposed amendment, Amherst residents would register their property for ownership much like they would for dogs. A nominal registration fee would enable residents to own up to six qualifying animals by right, according to Amherst Senior Planner Jonathan Tucker.

The various combinations of hens, rabbits, and other poultry that would be allowed are still under review, but the selection would be restricted to “animals which are relatively quiet and can be kept in fairly tight quarters without any stress or injury to their health,” said Tucker.

Along with the proposed changes would come additional regulations, including at-will inspections by the animal welfare division of the Amherst Police Department, bans on roosters and turkeys and a requirement that hens be fenced at least 10 feet from property borders and 20 feet from adjacent houses.

But these restrictions have not quelled the protests of at least one member of the Amherst Zoning Subcommittee, said Gerber. Gerber declined to provide his name, but said that for anyone who attends the Zoning Subcommittee meetings, the next of which is scheduled for Wednesday, “it’ll be pretty obvious” who that member is.

Otherwise, Gerber and fellow proponents of the amendment, who include Bernard Brennan, soon-to-be owner of Amethyst Farm, and David Tepfer, owner of Simple Gifts Farm, are optimistic about the future of Amherst’s backyard barnyards.

“They’re not really willing to go out on a limb for this, but I think they’ll support it,” said Gerber.

Brennan, who moved to Amherst from Connecticut late last summer, was involved in two successful movements to legalize hens in Hamden and New Haven. When he moved to Amherst, he saw that owning hens was legal, but that it required a very complicated and expensive permitting process, said Brennan.

Loosening restrictions on hen ownership, said Brennan, requires public education to reduce the stigmas associated with chickens and cooperation on behalf of proponents.

Amherst’s Board of Health helped complete the former requirement in October, when it unanimously ruled that backyard chickens will not pose a health risk to the public, according to a report in the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

“This isn’t really anything stranger than keeping a dog,” said Brennan. “In fact, I’d argue that it’s cheaper, cleaner, healthier, and quieter than your typical dog.”

Tucker said that with the proper regulation, giving residents the right to own backyard chickens and other selected animals “makes perfect sense,” but that the general attitude towards the proposed amendment will not be fully known until May’s Town Meeting.

“It being Amherst,” said Tucker, “everyone has an opinion.”

Lily Hicks can be reached at

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