At a housewarming recently, I found myself cornering Bangor City Councilor Ben Sprague. I had an important question: What is Bangor’s law regarding backyard chickens and how strictly is it enforced?
I have a burning desire to turn my quarter-acre lot in downtown Bangor into a fully-fledged urban homestead. Yes, I realize I should probably just move out to the country, but that’s not an option right now. Plus, there’s something intrinsically satisfying about living sustainably in a compact, urban space — it leaves more untouched land to enjoy recreationally.
Before moving to the east coast, I lived in Portland, Oregon, the mecca of backyard livestock. Portland allows residents to keep three or fewer chickens, ducks, doves, pigeons, pygmy goats or rabbits, without a permit. Want to keep turkeys, peacocks, cows, horses, burros, sheep, llamas or bees? You’ll need to notify your neighbors and purchase a $31 permit but it’s probably not a big deal.
Yes, comparing Portland, Oregon, to Bangor, Maine, is apples and oranges, but there’s a point. Portland is dense, urban and home to nearly 610,000 people. Bangor, is home to 33,000, spread out and home to just a handful of buildings more than five stories high.
So I was surprised when Sprague informed that no, I was not allowed to keep chickens on my dream mini-farm. But what he didn’t mention was I could have a horse. Or a llama. Or a donkey, guinea pigs, water buffalo or alpacas.
According to Article 13 in Chapter 163 of the City of Bangor code, “no person shall keep any fowl, goats, sheep, cattle or swine of any kind within the urban developed area.” Those animals are also banned from being kept in cellars, basements and attics — go figure.
But here’s the thing — that means there’s a whole slew of livestock animals that by definition are a-ok.
And not only that, but the dictionary defines “fowl” as “a bird such as a chicken that is raised for food” or “a bird of any kind.” So I guess that means either no more parrots and cockatiels for bird-loving kiddos in residential areas or if I don’t raise my chickens with the intention of eating them, it’s okay.
I know I’m not alone in my wishes to raise egg-laying fowl. Backyard chickens are in high demand in cities nationwide and several Maine communities, including nearby Orono, have OK’d residents to keep up to six hens. Jeremy Martin, Bangor’s director of code enforcement said his department fields a couple of questions about urban chickens each year and has had to impound illegally-kept fowl a handful of times.
So I make my case.
Bangor’s law is outdated — the last time it was updated was September 1998.
Martin said the city council looked into changing the ordinance eight years ago. However, it ultimately decided the risk of predators drawn to chickens and issues with property destruction outweighed the benefits. Plus he said, people interested in having chickens can have them, they just have to move to agriculturally-zoned areas.
“Bangor is very urban, we have small lot sizes and people are living in very tight spaces … and even if you fence them, that doesn’t mean predators don’t try to get to them,” Martin said.
I’m not encouraging you or your neighbors (and especially not my neighbors) to start raising water buffalo or even miniature horses — which aren’t prohibited by the ordinance. And please, no roosters — they don’t just crow at dawn.
There haven’t been any recent attempts by councilors to bring urban chickens to Bangor and Martin said there won’t be until someone else brings it up.
“There’s been no push from anyone to allow chickens in Bangor and there’s really no reason to act on it if there’s no increased interest,” he said.
But maybe it’s time Bangor starts showing interest.
We have a new council. Urban chicken coops have improved as the demand for city chicks has increased. And, I would argue, my three chickens, properly cooped, wouldn’t draw any more foxes to the neighborhood than the stray cats that roam the neighborhood. According to Chris Dyer of the Maine Warden Service, predators are also drawn to homes with bird feeders this time of year, but we don’t ban those.
In my opinion, the benefits of urban chickens outweigh the cons.
Chickens are great fertilizers. They eat kitchen scraps and bugs then poop out nitrogen-rich droppings which means with just a few birds, you’ll have sustainable organic pest control year around.
They require little space and are relatively easy to care for. The chickens wouldn’t have to run amuck with proper management and the updated ordinance could work in all sorts of peace of mind conditions.
There could be mandates on henhouses — how much space each chicken deserves, how big they can be, etc. The city could (and should) dictate the number or breeds of chickens allowed as well.
And there could even be rules about disposing chicken waste.
Some cities require wanna-be chicken owners to notify their neighbors and apply for a permit that lays out space requirements and asks for a processing fee so that’s an option too.
Bottom line, the local food movement is here to stay and it doesn’t get any fresher or more local than an omelet made from a backyard flock.