Farmer suing Dunbarton over rejection of chicken coop
Tom Giovagnoli walks on the site where he would like to build a 20,000 chicken egg operation on his property in Dunbarton on Thursday, May 30, 2013. Giovagnoli's plan faces opposition from neighbors who cite environmental concerns.
(TAEHOON KIM / Monitor file)
Tom Giovagnoli talks about his proposal for an egg operation with approximately 20,000 chickens on his property in Dunbarton on Thursday, May 30, 2013. Giavagnoli faces opposition from neighbors who cite environmental concerns.
(TAEHOON KIM / Monitor file)
Tom Giovagnoli is suing the town of Dunbarton after a plan to construct a 27,000-square-foot chicken coop on his farm was rejected by the planning board in December.
The suit alleges the body’s actions were “illegal and unreasonable” and as a result, Giovagnoli lost out on a farming opportunity worth more than $1 million.
His lawyer, John Cronin, said the suit will seek substantial economic damages. Giovagnoli couldn’t be reached for comment.
Last spring, Giovagnoli began a process to get site plan approval of the organic coop, which would have housed 20,000 egg-laying hens, on his 83-acre farm off Twist Hill Road.
He had an egg sales agreement with Pete and Gerry’s Organic Eggs, a company that requires its farmers to construct a “state of the art” specialty barn, according to the suit. In Giovagnoli’s proposed 44-by-588-foot coop, the chickens sit on a grate a foot above the ground. Their waste drops into the trough below before it is automatically scraped into an enclosed concrete pit, which is emptied every few months.
At several planning board hearings last fall, residents complained about potential smell and wastewater runoff.
In December, Giovagnoli asked the planning board for an answer before he spent more money to complete the site plan review. Up to that point, the suit alleges, he had spent more than $35,000 for engineering fees, expert reports and counsel.
The planning board voted unanimously to deny the project because it didn’t have enough information, according to minutes from the Dec. 18 meeting. The meeting minutes state Secretary Alison Vallieres said the board needs a complete plan with all of the changes incorporated before they can vote.
“He wanted to move on this quicker,” said Les Hammond, who was the board of selectmen’s representative on the planning board until he lost re-election. “Therefore, we were at a stalemate, and we couldn’t get forward.” No one who currently sits on the town planning board could be reached for comment.
The contract discussions between Pete and Gerry’s and Giovagnoli dissolved because of difficulty getting the approval, according to both parties.
“We can’t wait around as much as we would like to for an individual or a farm like Tom. . . . (We) had to move on and work on other sourcing,” said Jesse Laflamme, co-owner of Pete and Gerry’s. He said the window of opportunity has passed, and it’s “entirely uncertain” as to whether there will be another possibility in the future.
“There is an organic egg shortage, nationally,” he said. “So it’s an unfortunate turn of events.”
At the heart of the suit is the assertion the planning board acted unreasonably. According to the lawsuit, Giovagnoli’s land is located in the rural zone, which allows poultry farming, and the proposed barn met all setback, density, height and buffer requirements of the board.
At one meeting, the planning board determined the “use was allowed as a matter of right” and granted all of the requested waivers, Cronin said. Then, at the final hearing when Giovagnoli asked for conditional approval, he said, the board refused and said they do not grant conditional approvals.
“The history suggests otherwise,” Cronin said.
The lawsuit alleges, “the minutes of public record in other cases, proves without any doubt, the planning board does in fact grant conditional approvals.”
(Allie Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)