June 26, 2019

Chicken ordinance flies the coop

By Jason Starr

Observer staff

Residents in densely populated areas of Williston hoping to gain the ability to raise chickens as a sustainable food source were thwarted earlier this month when the selectboard abandoned consideration of relaxed regulations.

After a Sept. 4 public hearing that consisted entirely of comments encouraging the change, the board — by a three-to-two majority — opted for the status quo. Board members Ted Kenney and Joy Limoge reiterated opposition they have raised continually over the nine months that the ordinance has been studied and modified. Board chairman Terry Macaig joined them in opposition.

“I’ve had a huge public health concern from the very beginning,” Limoge said.

The ordinance was part of a two-step process that would have allowed landowners on parcels of less than 1 acre to keep up to six female chickens in enclosed coops. Currently, the town’s bylaws allow chicken-keeping only on larger parcels. The Williston Planning Commission unanimously recommended the bylaw change.

If the board had agreed to relax the bylaw, it then planned to adopt an ordinance to regulate backyard chicken coops, prescribing things like size, location, materials and fencing. The ordinance would have also imposed an annual permit fee and addressed potential noise and odor impacts. Town administrators referred to similar ordinances in Essex and South Burlington, where residential chicken coops are permitted, to craft the ordinance.

“There is no reason somebody who wants to provide a food source for their family should not be able to,” said resident Shawn Handy. “It’s their property and there are private property rights.”

The proposed ordinance was criticized for being over-regulatory.

“I don’t think it should be anywhere near as restrictive,” resident Dave DiElsi said of the proposal. “People who keep chickens should, and often do, know what they are doing.

“Just let us have chickens,” he added.

Kenney’s opposition was centered on the concern that some households that establish a chicken colony would not follow best practices.

“Not everyone is responsible,” he said.

Kenney also said the town would be unable to effectively enforce the ordinance.

Board members Jeff Fehrs and Terri Zittritsch supported the ordinance and bylaw change, along with several community members who spoke during the hearing.

“I feel like it’s important that we have the ability to raise and grow our own food,” resident Amy Grant said.

The board had consulted with officials from the state departments of health and agriculture about public health concerns unique to keeping chickens, particularly the potential for the spread of salmonella bacteria.

“I have seen a lot of people impacted by chickens from owners who don’t know what they are doing,” said Cindy Provost, who has applied for a seat on the planning commission. “Chickens get out. They get into other people’s property. They poop on other people’s property. If it’s under an acre, it could be in a place where neighbors are very close together, and that is going to impact other people.”

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