Chicken initiative generating plenty strong opinion

LACONIA — Opinion was divided when the Zoning Task Force held its first public meeting yesterday to seek comment on a proposal to permit the keeping of a limited number of chickens in all parts of the city, the issue at the top of its pecking order.
The current zoning ordinance restricts the keeping of livestock, including poultry, to three districts — the commercial resort and rural residential I and II — effectively barring chickens from the most densely populated parts of the city.
The proposal before the committee closely mirrors the ordinance adopted by Concord in December, 2011, which will be reviewed in September. It would permit keeping not more than five hens — but no roosters, capons or guinea hens — for the sole use of the household in all districts. The breeding of chickens and sale of eggs would be prohibited. Nor could chickens be slaughtered on the premisses. Chickens would be kept in coops placed in rear or side yards at least ten feet from the primary residence and 20 feet from any lot line. Chickens would not be allowed to roam free. Not more than one cubic yard of droppings, stored in a closed container, could be kept at one time.
Suzanne Perley, who chairs the Zoning Task Force, explained that the panel would present its recommendations to the Zoning Board of Adjustment, which in turn would forward its proposals for amending the ordinance to the City Council where the final authority rests.
"We are an advisory body," she said. "The final decisions will be made by the City Council."
After voicing his misgivings when the City Council met on Monday, Councilor Armand Bolduc (Ward 6) told the committee that he had received "a lot of calls" from people concerned by the prospect of chickens in their neighborhoods. "You're opening up a box of worms here," he warned, stressing the odor emitted by chicken droppings along with the likelihood that chickens would attract a variety of predators and rodents.
Bolduc said that in cold months those with chickens would be tempted to heat their coops with lamps, created the risk of fire. He suggested that anyone wishing to keep chickens should be required to have their property checked by a city official to determine if it was a suitable location for a coop and be licensed like dog owners.
Charles Drake, who in 2010 sparked the debate about chickens after being denied a variance to keep a flock of laying hens on his fenced lot on Bay Street, challenged Bolduc's knowledge of chickens by reminding the committee that he told the council that since hens would not lay without a rooster the proposal served no purpose. "He says he's a farmer, but he must be a gentleman farmer," Drake said. "Everybody knows hens lay eggs without roosters. You can't believe what he says."
Drake conceded that the waste smells, but explained that the odor can be eliminated by composting it and applying it as fertilizer. If I can't take care of my chickens, I shouldn't be allowed to have them," he said.
Michael Foote, one nine committee members, said that he keeps 10 chickens a goat and a sheep on his property on Rollercoaster Road where predators regularly harass the chickens. "Do we want to attract predators to our neighborhood?" he asked. Drake said that raccoons, skunks, foxes and other animals are already commonplace in many neighborhoods.
Another committee member, Larry Guild said that he raised chickens commercially and stressed that they require constant care. "What if your chicken dies?" he asked Drake, who replied "bury it."
Linda Pilliod, also from Rollercoaster Road, said she has kept chickens all her life and declared flatly "chickens do not belong in a city, mostly because of the smell, but also because they are loud."
Noting that many residents rent from landlords who prohibit pets, Lisa Morin of the Belknap County Extension Service, who spoke for herself, doubted that the keeping of chickens would become widespread. With Bolduc, she agreed that flocks could be registered with the city and suggested that chickens might be kept in a remote location, much like gardeners share communal space. She thought that most residents intending to keep chickens would be responsible and together a strong ordinance and strict enforcement would minimize the problems. "There are lots of examples of places where this has worked," Morin said.
Karen Barker, who with her husband Tom keeps a rooster, 10 hens and four chicks along with 10 "meat birds" at their home on Lane Road, said that she was unable to attend the meeting, but provided the committee with informational materials about keeping chickens in urban settings. She said that she collaborated with Planning Director Shanna Saunders and Perley in preparing the proposal.
Chickens first drew the attention of the Planning Department in October 2005 when Karianne Shelley, then an aspiring veterinarian at age 15, requested a variance to keep two hens at her home on Old North Main Street in order to complete a 4-H. The ZBA denied the variance, but when Shelley appealed voted three-to-two to grant the variance until she graduated from high school in two years time. Five years later Drake applied for a variance to keep between four and six laying hens. The ZBA denied his request and refused to reconsider its decision.
Meanwhile, chickens began appearing in backyards in cities and towns across the country. Between 2010 and 2012 more than 500 municipalities have amended local ordinances to enable residents to keep small flocks in even the most densely developed and heavily populated neighborhoods. In 2011, Concord amended its ordinance, which had confined chickens to lots of an acre or more, to allow owners of smaller lots to keep as many as five hens, but no roosters.