Cambridge doesn’t allow chickens. This couple is fighting to keep theirs.

The Boston Globe

The city could allow fowl as soon as this fall if a long-awaited zoning amendment passes.

Susan Filene held a chicken named Loretta as she stood beside her husband, Robert Filene, as they posed for a portrait in front of the chicken coop in their backyard. JESSICA RINALDI/GLOBE STAFF

CAMBRIDGE — For six years, Susan and Robert Filene’s backyard chickens have been doing what chickens do best: eating pests, producing compost, and laying eggs — upwards of 700 a year. In that time, the Filenes, both 81, say they haven’t had a single complaint from neighbors.

So, it came as a shock when they received a letter from the city in early July informing them that their chickens were in violation of the zoning code and ordering them to get rid of the birds — or pay $300 in fines. A day.

The Filenes panicked. They considered liquidating their savings to pay the fines for as long as possible. They even considered moving to Somerville, where fowl are permitted.

Ultimately, they decided to stay and push for a change they think is long overdue: legalizing hen-keeping in the city. They hired a lawyer to appeal the fines and have been inviting city officials over to meet their chickens — six city councilors and the mayor have visited so far.

“[Our son]’s saying, ‘Ma, just make this your legacy,’” Susan Filene said. “’You can get this through.’”

The couple’s efforts are paying off: Three city councilors and the mayor introduced draft language at the city council meeting earlier this month for a zoning amendment that would legalize chicken-keeping. City staff are currently reviewing the language, and the council is set to consider the amendment at its Sept. 11 meeting.

If it passes, Cambridge would join the more than 60 towns and cities across the Commonwealth that allow chicken-keeping, including adjacent Somerville, Brookline, Arlington, and Watertown, as well as some Boston neighborhoods, according to a list maintained by the Northeast Organic Farming Association.

Proponents say chicken-keeping can fortify local food systems and support a healthy diet, and proper regulations can mitigate adverse health impacts from unhygienic birds.

“We shouldn’t get in the way of people providing themselves with food,” said councilor Quinton Zondervan, one of the policy order’s co-sponsors. “Fining them when they do it anyway, I think, is an injustice.”

But chicken-keeping has a history of ruffling some Cantabrigians’ feathers.

In 2010, controversy ensued when a Riverside resident complained to the city about unpleasant odors wafting in the co-op next door, where tenants were keeping chickens and ducks. The neighbors appealed, leading to a colorful, three-hour-long hearing before the board of zoning appeals that 90 residents attended.

Despite a petition with more than 600 signatures in support, the board denied the residents’ appeal, doubling down on the birds’ illegality. With the city council at the time uninterested in passing an amendment, the residents had no choice but to donate their birds to a farm, said Blake Brasher, one of the appellants.

“We really thought of them as pets,” Brasher said. “The ducks especially had a lot of personality, and it was really sad to have to get rid of them.”

“I think the city was traumatized a little bit by that,” Zondervan said of the 2010 dispute. “That kind of sealed the deal for a while that we’re just not going to allow this thing.”

Chicken-keeping returned as an issue in 2015, when the city formed an urban agriculture task force and identified it as one of three priority policy areas, alongside beekeeping and allowing the sale of agricultural products.

But there was more urgency around legalizing beekeeping, so chicken-keeping “fell by the wayside,” even though the task force found “certainly not vocal opposition” to the practice in its outreach process, said Iram Farooq, Cambridge’s assistant city manager for community development.

“It was not an intentional ‘let’s not do this.’ It was more that there were other things that ended up being more urgent,” she said.

Despite the issue’s rocky record, proponents are hoping for a smooth road to legalization this time around, now that chicken-keeping has more support from elected officials than it did a decade ago.

“[The amendment] would need five votes to pass, and I think the votes are there,” said City Councilor Marc McGovern.

Putting regulations and a permitting process in place would also mitigate health risks from chicken-keeping that may be happening “under the radar,” he added.

Per the amendment’s draft language, roosters would be prohibited, flocks would be capped at a dozen chickens, and chicken keepers would need a permit from the public health department.

“By regulating it … it’s just better for everybody, including the animals,” McGovern said.

The Filenes hold up their flock as an example of how chicken-keeping can be done responsibly and in a way that benefits the environment.

Their seven chickens — Walnut, Rocky, Loretta, Annie, Little Red, Salem, and Meadow — live in two wooden coops, where they enjoy ice water in the summer and heated water bowls in the winter. For one supervised hour each day, the birds range freely in the yard, during which they munch on their favorite grub: slugs, ticks, and mosquito larvae.

Thanks to the chickens’ prodigious pest-eating — and the fertile manure they produce — the rest of the Filenes’ burgeoning urban farm is thriving, too. Their garden now yields almost all of the greens, garlic, onions, and herbs they eat, among other crops like delicata squash and cherry tomatoes. And then there are the eggs: around five a day in peak season, more than enough for all the household’s needs.

The chickens are “a cornerstone of the farm,” said Laura Stenzel. She and her husband, Amer Koudsi, have rented a first-floor unit in the Filenes’ house for several years and frequently work in their garden. “They’re powerhouses.”

They’re also beloved pets, each with a distinct personality — Rocky is a “mafia boss,” Susan Filene jokes. They’ve even been around for important life events, like Stenzel and Koudsi’s virtual wedding, held in the Filenes’ backyard in 2020. “The chickens were the bridesmaids,” Susan Filene said.

To keep the birds, the Filenes are shelling out thousands in legal fees for an appeals attorney, not to mention the many hours rallying city officials to their cause. But it’s a burden they say they’re happy to shoulder on behalf of the city’s other chicken keepers, current and future.

“Other people I know who have chickens in Cambridge are younger, have jobs, don’t have the time,” Susan Filene said. “We now have the resources, so if we can help everybody who has chickens or might want to have chickens, I’m glad that it’s us and that we can do that.”

For Brasher, who says losing his own appeal in 2010 seems like “a lifetime ago,” seeing the amendment pass would be a long-awaited victory.

“I’m glad to hear that something’s happening,” he said. “I would say it’s about time.”

A previous version of this article misstated the location of the unit rented by Laura Stenzel and Amer Koudsi in the Filenes’ house.


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