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For Chelmsford Chicken Owners, Another Burden

January 7, 2019
Alexander Melville of Chelmsford at his family's chicken coop. "They all laughed at me when I said I wanted a plot plan for a chicken coop," he said. "'Really, they want that?' 'Yeah, that's what the're asking for.'"

CHELMSFORD -- Current and prospective chicken owners who are struggling to meet stricter animal regulations are finding the new requirements harbor unexpected costs.

When the Board of Health instituted its new regulations for keeping small animals in early December, it included the requirement that permit applicants furnish a certified plot plan for their property -- something usually requested for building projects and real estate transactions.

Alexander Melville, whose family has had a flock of chickens since 2017, said he was initially told the cost would only be $200 to $300, but his research has found it to be significantly higher.

He sought quotes from five different surveyors, which provided him figures in the range of $1,500 to $2,500.

“They all laughed at me when I said I wanted a plot plan for a chicken coop,” Melville, 32, said. ”‘Really, they want that?’ ‘Yeah, that’s what they’re asking for.’”

He said he doesn’t believe the Board of Health expected the price to be so high when instituting the requirement, and he hopes the board will vote to change the regulation to make it less costly. In a Wednesday letter to the board, Melville offered other options that could provide the same information at little to no cost: an applicant-made map of the property, the town GIS mapping tool, or an accurate mortgage inspection plan.

Melville is among about a dozen Chelmsford chicken owners that received permits despite not having the 40,000 square feet required under town bylaw. Knowing this might prevent him from acquiring a permit, he said he contacted the town Health Department in late 2016 to inquire about his chances before investing in the coop and run that houses eight chickens in the side yard of his Monmouth Street home.

Melville said then-Health Director Richard Day -- who now works part-time as the assistant health director -- told him he had plenty of room and encouraged him to build the structure right up against his property line abutting a wooded town-owned parcel Melville believes is too small to build on.

One of Melville’s neighbors helped him construct the coop and run and it was permitted without problem for nearly two years. The family -- like the other permitted chicken owners who didn’t meet the zoning requirements -- were shocked to begin receiving letters from the building and health departments in the fall saying they could be subject to fines each day the violation continued.

Laura McLeod, who has become a spokeswoman of sorts for these chicken owners, said the certified plot plan issue doesn’t apply to her because she already had one due to an ongoing home addition project. But for many families, the high price tag would be an obstacle to keep or obtain chickens, she said.

“If it’s going to cost that much for somebody to get a certified plot plan, I think you’re going to see people raise their arms up and just say, ‘We can’t do it,’” McLeod said.

Health Director Sue Rosa said Friday the Board of Health was made aware of the cost of the certified plot plans and intended to discuss the matter at its Monday night meeting.

According to the agenda, the meeting will also include public input regarding the side yard component of the animal regulations. As the regulations are currently written, coops and runs may only be in backyards.

Also on Monday the Board of Selectmen is expected to sign a warrant for a Feb. 4 Special Town Meeting with one article that seeks to remove game birds from the 40,000-square-foot requirement following a joint meeting with the Planning Board.

Should the Special Town Meeting not go forward, Melville said he plans to submit a similar citizen petition article for spring Town Meeting.

Even if the square footage requirement is removed, under the more stringent Board of Health rules Melville’s property does not meet the setback requirements, which prescribe a minimum of 25 feet from side abutting property lots, 30 feet from the rear and 40 feet from the front lot line.

As the conversation on the matter continues, Melville said he’s been in regular contact with the Board of Health to make sure he’s doing the right thing to keep his chickens.

He said all of his dealings with town boards and employees have been courteous and he truly believes they are working hard to come up with updated regulations that make sense for the town and work with residents.

“Regardless of what the outcome will be, I think they’ve helped me navigate through what I need to do,” Melville said.

He said he’s waiting for now to schedule his public hearing with the Board of Health, but he hopes the fact the adjacent lot is empty will work in his favor.

“I think it fits the spirit of the regulations, even if it doesn’t fit the words of the regulations,” Melville said. “So I’m somewhat resigned to the public hearing, but I think that given my history of no complaints, the support of my neighbors and the specifics of my lot in particular, I’m hopeful that the board will grant me my nonconforming permit.”

Follow Alana Melanson at facebook.com/alana.lowellsun or on Twitter @alanamelanson.

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