AMHERST – Jill and Jeff Brewster can’t understand what all the fuss is about.
When the couple moved to Amherst last year they built a small chicken coop and run on Derby Street and went about raising a small group of chickens to provide eggs for their young family.
Little did they know they’d soon have to give their chickens as well as the coop and run away. They didn’t know having agricultural animals within the town is prohibited by land-use bylaws in areas zoned as residential.
“We had no idea,” Jill said. “We knew they were allowed in other communities, but we made the mistake of not checking with Amherst specifically.”
When the Brewsters bought the home their plan all along was to have some small animals. They never intentioned to run a large-scale farming operation, but something small with a few animals and a garden.
Everything went well at first. That is until someone called the RCMP, the Department of Agriculture and the town with a complaint because they thought the animals were not healthy. The neighbour, she said, accused them of keeping the chickens in a box and not looking after them.
She said nothing could be further from the truth.
“To be honest, I cried. To us, they’re more like pets,” Jill said. “We built the coop and the run and they were there for six to eight months. All our work was just starting to pay off. And then we had to get rid of them.”
The Brewsters said they took good care of the flock. Anytime they went away they had family come check on them to make sure they were fed and out of the weather.
After the complaint, the Brewsters received a letter and were visited by a bylaw enforcement officer from the town and told they couldn’t keep the chickens.
They found a friend in Pugwash who offered to take the chickens and care for them.
Jill admitted to being bitter because there are other parts of town that are allowed to have horses and other livestock.
Over the winter, the Brewsters researched the town’s bylaws and reached out to members of town council. They said Jason Blanch was the only councilor to respond to their questions. They believe there are benefits to having chickens.
“Number 1 is food security,” Jeff said. “It doesn’t seem like that would be a factor because we live in a modern country, but it could easily become a factor if something were to happen.”
He said his family wants to eat organic and they feel there is a disconnect between people and where their food comes from.
“As a result, there has been a loss of some basic life skills, like raising animals and gardening,” he said. “They’re also a good tool for teaching children responsibility and respect for animals.”
Speaking to council in June, the town’s manager of planning and strategic initiatives, Andrew Fisher said chickens are included under the definition of an agricultural animal under the Land-Use Bylaw.
Section 4.3 of the bylaw prohibits agricultural animals in town, expect for three specific land parcels that contain existing pasture on Robert Angus Drive.
Fisher said Moncton allows up to four chickens with minimum requirements for lot area, coop and setbacks. Saint John and Fredericton have similar permissions, while Wolfville allows up to four laying hens.
Chickens are permitted in some areas of the Halifax Regional Municipality, CBRM and Guysborough allow chickens in serviced residential lots of one acre or greater and the Municipality of Cumberland allows chickens in most areas, with the exception of properties less than 4.9 acres such as the d’Orsay Road and Fox Ranch Road.
Sackville, N.B., Yarmouth and Antigonish are like Amherst in that they prohibit chickens.
Fisher said there are some benefits to allowing chickens in urban areas, but there are also negatives.
“This issue can be controversial given the potential nuisance the practice could create for the surrounding neighbourhood,” Fisher told council. “Noise, smell, attraction of rodents and aesthetics are just some of the potential negative impacts on surrounding property.”
Jill said things like smell and noise can be easily handed with responsible ownership. She doesn't believe there will be a surge in chicken coops if the town decides to change the bylaw. She believes only those who are really committed would be motivated to do the work to set up a coop and look after the animals.
Blanch said he believes allowing people to raise chickens in town would be positive. He feels it would be educational to allow families to raise chickens.
“There’s a health and education benefit,” he said. “Many of the communities that have chicken bylaws I haven’t heard in the media a big outcry about it.”
As for now, the matter has been sent to the town’s planning advisory committee for review and recommendation, including a public participation opportunity.