December 13, 2017

Hens in the ’hood?

Planners recommend dropping ban on backyard chicken coops

By Jason Starr

Observer staff

Keeping chickens is probably the most accessible way for people who don’t live on farms or large parcels of land to reap the benefits of sustainable, on-site, animal-based food production

Yet, for anyone living on a parcel of less than one acre in Williston — which includes hundreds of homes in the village and residential zoning districts — keeping chickens falls under a “livestock” ban in the town’s zoning regulations.

The Williston Planning Commission on Nov. 7 unanimously recommended the Williston Selectboard exempt “female poultry” from the definition of livestock. The selectboard began consideration of the proposal during its meeting last week.

The exemption would allow chicken-keeping in the residential and village zoning districts with setback requirements for chicken coops of 15 feet from a rear property line and 10 feet from a side property line. The change was requested by several Williston homeowners.

“We would love to have backyard chickens,” said Williston resident and Williston Central School teacher Aron Merrill. “They are pretty easy to raise. They are self-contained; they don’t run all over the place. It’s a great way to teach sustainability to your kids, and it’s a great way to go into your own backyard and get your eggs.”

The practice would also go hand-in-hand with what WCS students are learning in science classes about human impact on the earth and steps people can take to have a smaller environmental footprint, Merrill said.

The selectboard plans to consult with representatives of the Vermont departments of agriculture and health to learn about any health concerns related to residential chicken coops. Board members are also looking at ordinances in neighboring towns where backyard chickens are allowed, such as Essex and South Burlington.

The selectboard plans to couple any change to the zoning laws with a new ordinance that would regulate chicken coops. An ordinance could require a permitting process and outline fines for ordinance violations, Williston Planning Director Ken Belliveau said.

“I’m not in favor of this, but if we’re going to do it then I want to see that it’s regulated,” board member Joy Limoge said at the Nov. 21 selectboard meeting.

In an interview Monday, Limoge said she is concerned about health ramifications of allowing chickens in residential areas of town, including the spread of salmonella and the interaction of household pets and chickens.

“There is a lot of stuff that is spread easily by chickens,” she said. “What are we opening ourselves up to? I would like to see information that would explain that to us.”

Limoge noted that many of the residential neighborhoods in Williston have homeowners association regulations that prevent backyard chicken-keeping. Those rules would supersede any town allowance.

The exemption would not apply to male poultry — roosters — which are notoriously loud at daybreak.

Belliveau said enforcement of the provisions of any backyard chicken ordinance would be on a complaint basis.

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