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Boston’s would-be chicken farmers lay out case

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Steven Gag’s young neighbors in Roslindale help him raise his chickens for their eggs.

The movement began in a Roslindale backyard with a bird named Yolanda.

The white-feathered hen with the pink wattle came to Boston as an outlaw, a sprightly chick that had to keep a low profile as she produced a bounty of eggs.

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Within a year, animal control officials were on to her and her sisters, Carmen and Roxy, and eventually forced the clucking trio into what their owners call an “undisclosed location.’’

The removal of the chickens - city zoning laws forbid raising poultry in Boston - has sparked a movement over the past year that has swelled from petitions to websites and Facebook pages to a large city meeting last month that drew hundreds of local residents, most of whom were lobbying officials to change the laws.

“Most chicken owners consider their birds as family pets and would be devastated to lose them,’’ said Dakota Butterfield, 58, of Jamaica Plain, a member of Legalize Chickens in Boston, a growing group interested in the plight of Yolanda.

Their call to allow city residents to build chicken coops and harvest eggs has found an audience with Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who two years ago proudly announced a city coop with 50 Rhode Island Red hens in a pen on Long Island.

His office and the Boston Redevelopment Authority, which convened last month’s meeting, have launched what they are calling an urban agriculture initiative, which within a year may allow residents in some neighborhoods to raise chickens, keep bees, and build large rooftop gardens.

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“There is a food revolution happening in our country today: People are becoming more interested and engaged in the process of where their food comes from,’’ Menino said in a statement. “In the inner city, obesity is too high and the availability of fresh, affordable foods is too low. By changing the zoning code to promote urban farming, we are taking an important step in empowering communities around food and ensuring that everyone has access to healthy, quality food.’’

Not everyone has signed on to the idea of having hens in the confines of a dense urban neighborhood. They have worried about everything from their property value to noise - hens rarely crow like their male counterparts, roosters, but they sometimes squawk when they produce eggs. Other concerns include smells, sanitation, and attracting pests, as well as potential diseases such as avian flu.

When city officials launched a pilot project last year on about an acre of land in south Dorchester, they received a litany of questions and complaints.

“People said, ‘Chickens, you’re kidding me?’.’’ said Tad Read, a senior planner at the Boston Redevelopment Authority who is managing the urban agriculture initiative, which may rezone large swaths of the city to allow chicken coops as a right or allow residents to seek permits at a public hearing.

“We learned that some people are uncomfortable with this, and they’re going to want information before they’re comfortable,’’ he said, noting that concerns about avian flu are unfounded. “The city is establishing rules and regulations so that they make good neighbors.’’

Advocates for allowing chickens in Boston argue that locally harvested eggs can be more nutritious than those that come from poultry factories. They say fowl can also help city residents get in touch with nature and can bind communities as neighbors share in the work and benefits of the chickens.

Advocates also note that Boston is among the last urban redoubts that ban raising poultry, which are allowed in cities such as New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Seattle. Local communities including Brookline, Belmont, Lexington, and Newton, permit chickens.

“It should be like having a dog or cat,’’ said Margaret Connors, 48, of Jamaica Plain, who recently began selling vegetables from urban farms. “You get it registered with the city, and you deal with the regulations around owning that pet. That should be the extent of it.’’

A few blocks from where Yolanda and her sisters once roamed, Steven Gag knows he is pushing his luck. Unlike Yolanda’s owner, Audra Karp, who sought a permit to raise chickens and was denied by the city, Gag and his wife are hoping to remain “under the radar.’’

They are now raising six hens - one was killed by a cat and another by a weasel - in an extensive coop they built out of their children’s old playhouse, one of at least a dozen such illicit coops in the city, advocates estimate. Their neighbor’s three young children help them take care of the chickens and reap the rewards of about 1,200 eggs a year.

The chickens, which they received by mail shortly after they hatched, are barely audible in the din of the city, especially when a commuter train is passing near their house. They have remained within their fenced-in yard for the past year and a half, except for the time they hopped over to escape from a raccoon. (They were lured back by the berries the Gags grow in their yard.)

“I think a lot more people should be doing this,’’ Gag said. “You just have to talk to your neighbors to get their permission, and it helps you get to know them. But before you know it, everybody who was on the fence about it comes over, brings their kids, and it works out.’’

While the Gags are openly flouting the zoning rules, one of their neighbors is trying to keep a lower profile with his new hobby.

The 45-year-old artist named Steven, who declined to give his last name, has camouflaged his coop so that it is “visually integrated into the urban environment to make it hard to see from the street.’’

“I’m always on the lookout for an unmarked city car,’’ he said. “I’d probably feel the same way if I had a meth lab in my basement.’’

He has grown attached to his six chickens, which cost about $20 a month to feed and compensate him with about 120 eggs a month. He doesn’t mind the 15 hours a week of work they require.

“They each have distinct personalities,’’ he said. “If the city orders them out, it would be like someone coming and taking my dogs away.’’

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.

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