SALEM — It is hard for a chicken to run afoul of the law in this city because there aren’t many rules or regulations governing the backyard birds.
This is no town for Marshal Rooster Cogburn.
The lack of adequate zoning or permitting regulations became apparent last week when the Board of Appeal held a hearing on urban chickens.
Michele Conway, who has four hens in her Orchard Street backyard, went before the board to appeal a decision by the building inspector who, in response to a complaint from a neighbor, ruled that chickens aren’t allowed under local zoning.
He cited a local ordinance stating that “no building in which farm animals are kept shall be permitted within 100 feet of any property line.” Conway’s coop is just a few feet from the yard of neighbors who said the birds are noisy, smelly and too close to their home.
The inspector also noted that the city has special permits that might allow chickens, but not in the residential zoning district where Conway lives.
The hearing room at 120 Washington St. was packed with chicken owners, old and young, all of whom expressed their love for chickens and cited countless reasons why backyard hens belong in Salem.
Three city councilors in attendance also came out strongly in favor of the fowl.
The chickens won on a 4-1 vote, with the majority of the appeals board deciding that Conway’s birds are family pets and not an “agricultural operation” as defined by a city zoning ordinance.
That is the same conclusion the board reached in 2008, the last time chickens were the subject of a ZBA hearing, when a neighbor unsuccessfully challenged a Federal Street family’s five fowl.
The one-hour hearing made it apparent that the city and state chicken laws are about as clear as a coop filled with feathers.