Chelmsford Chicken Owners Cry Foul Over Crackdown
CHELMSFORD -- Laura McLeod thought she had done the right thing.
Long an owner of chickens, McLeod said when she found out a few years ago she needed a permit to keep them, she went to the town and obtained one.
Then and in the subsequent years she went back to renew it, McLeod said the Board of Health never took issue with the size of her property.
So she was shocked when she began receiving notices from the town this fall that she needed to get rid of her chickens because her property did not meet the 40,000 square feet requirement under town bylaws.
According to the most recent letters from the health and building departments, McLeod must provide the town with her plans to remove her chickens by the end of this month, and follow through with getting rid of them and their coop by the end of the year, when her current permit expires. If she doesn’t remove them, she could be subject to fines of $25 to $100 each day they stay on her property past Dec. 31.
“It’s very upsetting, because these girls are our pets,” McLeod said as she stroked one of her five hens, named Dorothy, outside the coop at her home in Chelmsford center Monday afternoon.
McLeod’s friend, Pam Pelletier, said she was attracted to her North Chelmsford home because she loved the idea of being able to keep a small amount of livestock at the former farmhouse. Pelletier has six chickens, which she said she raised from chicks.
Pelletier said she finds them to be a great source of comfort and they help to soothe her anxiety.
“I love my girls,” she said. “I’m not getting rid of them. They’re going to have to fight me to the death for that one.”
Pelletier questioned why the property size restriction is even necessary, when the chickens must stay in an enclosed coop and run.
McLeod said there are many others in town who are keeping chickens without permits, “flying under the radar and hoping a neighbor doesn’t squawk on them.”
“These people are enjoying their chickens,” she said. “Here we are, we did what was asked of us, and now we’re basically being threatened.”
Backyard chickens became a point of contention in town in late summer, when concerns over a possible connection to a Westlands neighborhood rat infestation came to light. Residents on Buckman Drive pointed to a neighbor’s chickens as the cause, leading to several highly charged discussions at Board of Selectmen, Planning Board and Board of Health meetings.
A fall Town Meeting article that sought to reduce the property size required to keep chickens to 15,000 square feet was also pulled in response. An amended item is expected to come up again at spring Town Meeting.
Following the Buckman Drive issue, other properties with chickens came to light and new Building Commissioner/Zoning Enforcement Officer Shaun Shanahan discovered that 11 of the approximately 20 chicken permits issued by the Board of Health were to properties smaller than the required size.
“As far as whether someone has chickens or not, that’s not in my wheelhouse of important things,” Shanahan said, noting he has no involvement in issuing the chicken permits. “However, I do have to look at the black and white of the zoning of it.”
McLeod said the first letter she received said she had until Oct. 5 to get rid of her chickens or be fined $300 a day.
That’s when she began to reach out to numerous town officials.
After things cooled off a bit, Shanahan said he met with the Board of Health and they decided the best course of action would be to allow owners to at least keep their chickens through the expiration date of their permits.
In the meantime, chicken owners are able to seek hearings with town boards in an attempt to keep their chickens.
Westlands chicken, duck and rabbit owners Steven and Melanie Agostino -- who declined to comment for this story, citing that they have retained attorney Doug Hausler to represent them in the matter -- were supposed to have a hearing before the Board of Health Tuesday night. The well-attended hearing did not go forward, however, leaving some residents questioning whether town officials were intentionally stalling.
Health Director Sue Rosa said Wednesday that board member Dr. Eric Meikle needed to leave during the meeting due to a prior commitment, and Hausler was not comfortable with continuing that night without the full board present.
After discussion with town counsel, the hearing was rescheduled to Dec. 3, the same night as the Board of Health’s public input session for draft chicken regulations updated to reflect public health priorities concerning control of feed, waste, odor and vermin, Rosa said.
McLeod had scheduled a public hearing before the board on Dec. 10, but said she decided to withdraw her request due to frustration over what happened with the Agostinos’ hearing.
The letters Shanahan sent out also notified the chicken owners of their right to seek a zoning variance from the Board of Appeals.
Those who try to seek a variance may not end up having to get rid of their chickens before the matter comes up at spring Town Meeting, depending upon when they initiate it. Shanahan said the board process can take up to a few months.
Whether the matter goes more zoning or health, or continues to be a mix of the two, he’s hoping it becomes a less contentious issue.
“Hopefully cooler heads will prevail,” Shanahan said.
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