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Neighbors cry foul over Dunbarton landowner’s plan for massive chicken coop

Last modified: 5/31/2013 12:09:19 PM
For years, Tom Giovagnoli has dreamed of retiring as a mechanic to farm an 85-acre swath of rustic, rolling land along Twist Hill Road in Dunbarton.

The son of an Italian pig farmer from Manchester, Giovagnoli said he was raised close to the earth, learning at an early age the value of caring for land and livestock without pesticides or other unnatural methods. And he said he employs those practices to this day, to grow hay and raise a few head of cattle in his free time.

But to live fully off the land, the 49-year-old knows he will need to do more, and in recent months he has sketched an ambitious vision: an organic chicken coop one and a half times the length of a football field.

Pete and Gerry’s, an organic egg retailer based in Monroe, has already agreed to purchase Giovagnoli’s eggs. The company has also worked with him to design a 27,000-square-foot coop, which would house some 20,000 birds.

If erected, according to town officials, Giovagnoli’s chicken coop would be the biggest building in all of Dunbarton.

But that won’t happen if a handful of disapproving neighbors have any say.

Several landowners in the area told planning officials last month they are adamantly opposed to living near such a large chicken operation, in part because of the threat it poses to surrounding water supplies, but also because of its negative impact on property values and the potentially horrendous smell.

“This is far beyond a normal chicken coop,” said Janice VandeBogart, whose property is the closest to the proposed barn site. “It’s enormous.”

The town planning board has yet to decide on Giovagnoli’s proposal, but at their meeting last month, board members accepted his site-plan review application, the first of several steps he would have to take before receiving permission to construct the barn, building inspector Kyle Parker said.

But even that move has proven controversial, with opponents arguing it implies that the barn is an agricultural use, which, they say, it is not.

Giovagnoli’s property is zoned as low-density residential, which means it is permitted by Dunbarton to house agriculture, including poultry, as long as it is offset from property lines.

Craig Webb, who owns land behind Giovagnoli’s and who has been critical of the barn, argues that given its scale, the venture is more commercial than anything else. Fellow neighbors Merlin and Kimberly Chapman have voiced the same critique. Earlier this month, they filed an appeal of the board’s decision, contending that if the barn is in fact a commercial operation, it is then subject to an entirely different set of restrictions. The zoning board plans to take up the matter at a public hearing June 10.

Meanwhile, Giovagnoli insists his vision is not as grand and invasive as others make it out to be.

As designed, the barn would sit 46 feet wide by 588 feet long on a small plateau near the center of his property. The site is surrounded by trees and some wetlands, and a pond and brook are visible nearby to the east.

“I think what it is, what is really scaring the neighbors is the size of the barn,” Giovagnoli said yesterday outside his home. “Five hundred and eighty-eight feet. It’s big. There’s no denying it. What the neighbors don’t understand is this is an organic layer barn.”

A layer barn houses hens on an elevated, open platform, to allow waste from the birds to drop to a lower level, where it is pushed mechanically to one end of the barn and stored in an enclosed space. The eggs are stored in a refrigerated room at the opposite end. Containing everything in one space prevents runoff during rainstorms or other severe weather, Giovagnoli said.

Giovagnoli said the barn has to be big to allow each bird adequate space to roam. To house 20,000 birds conventionally, he said, a coop could be as small as 3,000 square feet – nine times smaller than what he has proposed.

“I could build a house 3,000 square feet and put the same amount of birds in it,” he said. “I could do that. But I don’t want to. I want to go organic.”

Still, neighbors aren’t convinced the operation wouldn’t come without consequences, for them and the rest of the town.

Webb is concerned the volume of water Giovagnoli will use to care for the birds – as much as 1,600 gallons per day, he said – could drain the water table and cut into supplies in neighboring wells. And he’s dubious that runoff won’t at some point seep into the surrounding wetlands.

Webb also said he recently traveled to one of Pete and Gerry’s farms and was appalled by the odor.

“I got within a half-mile and you couldn’t even breathe, the air was so foul,” he said, adding that his daughter has a respiratory condition, which may be aggravated by changes in air quality if the barn is built.

VandeBogart said the negative impact the chicken barn could have on nearby property values would reverberate across the entire town.

“If the values of our property plummet and we can’t sell for their assessed values, then it will snowball for the rest of Dunbarton,” she said. “The rest of the people will have to pay the taxes.”

VandeBogart said she supports organic practices in general but doesn’t believe Giovagnoli’s vision fits the area, which she said has become increasingly residential in the past decade.

John Porter, a professor at the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension and agriculture specialist who has surveyed Giovagnoli’s site, disagreed.

“People in the state are always talking about locally grown food and meat, so it’s kind of frustrating when you’ve got a business plan before you and all the sudden no one wants it in their backyards,” he said.

Porter described the plan as a welcome addition to an increasingly sparse statewide agricultural landscape. He also said the smell from manure would be minimal because of how it is stored, and that any noticeable stench would be filtered by the trees.

And he said categorizing a chicken barn as either commercial or agricultural is unfair.

“Any profitable agricultural operation is going to be commercial,” he said. “(Giovagnoli is) going to be commercial just like the dairy farmer down the road and the pumpkin farmer.”

Jesse Laflamme, co-owner and CEO of Pete and Gerry’s Organics, called many of the recent criticisms unfounded.

The farm would not attract an exorbitant amount of rodents, he said. Nor would it emit runoff. Nor would it stink.

Laflamme, a third-generation egg producer, said the chickens would need about 1,000 gallons of water per day – roughly equivalent to the resources required to run a 50- to 60-cow dairy farm. And he said Giovagnoli would be held to a strict company standard and would be subject to routine inspections.

“We really want to produce good eggs,” he said. “We don’t leave anything to chance. (Farmers) follow our rules and our guidelines.”

Giovagnoli said it would serve him no purpose to run a sloppy operation.

“If the site is not clean and I’m not FDA-approved, I’m out of a job,” he said. “If I lose a contract with Pete and Gerry’s, then I’ve got an $8,000 per month payment to make. Everything is on the line for this. My house is on the line for this.”

(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319, jblackman@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @JBlackmanCM.)


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