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Concord City Council denies year-long effort to ease chicken coop setback requirements

  • This chicken was recently seen walking around South Street. No word if he or she lives on the street or was just out for a leisurely stroll. It's not every day you see a chicken roaming around downtown Concord so we figured we'd share. KATE PORTER / For the Insider

Monitor staff
Published: 1/14/2021 4:02:48 PM

Despite a year-long effort, Concord’s chicken-raising restrictions are staying in place.

In an 11-4 vote Monday, the Concord City Council voted to keep a buffer zone of at least 30 feet between a chicken coop and city property lines in order to keep chickens. The ordinance also allows five chickens per acre lot – but no roosters. Mayor Jim Bouley joined in the majority vote.

“The current ordinance has worked,” said Councilor-at Large Amanda Grady Sexton, a long opponent of the proposed changes. “The only cases where we understand it hasn’t worked has been in cases where that ordinance has been violated.”

The issue has been debated and studied for over a year, after one family’s attempt to set up a chicken coop against the current regulations touched off a conflict in a Concord neighborhood.

Francesca Brown was in fourth grade when she wrote a letter to the council and appeared at city hearings asking for a change. Brown had had four chickens in her yard up until she was four years old. They lived in a potting shed 19 feet from one property line and right against another line. But in 2014, the city code enforcement officer had found the chickens were too close to the neighbors’ property and ordered they be given away.

Since September 2019, Brown asked for a reduction in the code to allow her to have chickens again.

The debate aired itself out over multiple council meetings and carried over into the Public Safety Advisory Board, which on Dec. 15 voted 8-3 to keep the current 30-foot buffer in place. Supporters of the change argued the ordinance barred too many from being able to raise chickens as pets; opponents have pointed to the potential for nuisance to other neighbors, as well as health and safety concerns for both chickens and humans about close quarters.

Previously, advocates for a reduction in the barrier had asked for a new buffer zone of five feet between property lines.

On Monday, Ward Two Councilor Erle Pierce suggested a compromise: 15 feet.

That idea had support from Ward Four Councilor Meredith Hatfield, who said that many of her constituents are automatically barred from chickens because of the 30-foot rule.

“I think a good first step is to reduce the 30 feet, because I think for several of our downtown wards, it means, you know, no one can have chickens,” she said.

Ward Five Councilor Rob Werner disagreed, though he took pains to argue he still supports chickens. “It’s not about squelching the idea of folks having chickens,” he said “I think that has worked very well across the city for most folks.”

But, he added: “I do think we have to keep in mind very densely populated areas and when it becomes an unreasonable accommodation because of the small amount of space available.”

Grady Sexton argued that reducing the barrier would be validating others who might try to push the new limits and cause further conflict.

She and others said that an increase in chicken raising in close quarters could raise the risk of salmonella, pointing to a CDC report that found that 1,700 cases of salmonella in the United States last year were as a result of backyard chickens. Reducing the buffer zone would need to be accompanied by additional regulations over chickens to address those concerns, she argued.

“I’m going to speak on behalf of the chickens,”said Ward Six Councilor Linda Kenison, speaking in favor of the motion. “It is extremely unhealthy and unwise to house chickens in these small areas, leading to various diseases among the chickens.”

Councilor-at-large Nathan Fennessey, who voted against keeping the status quo, took a moment to thank Brown.

“I’m sure this has been quite the lesson in how local government works, probably much more than she thought she would ever learn,” Fennessey said. “I’m very glad that you’ve got involved and brought this to our attention.”

Mask mandate renewed

The council also voted to extend the city’s mask mandate ordinance through June. That ordinance, issued in September, had technically expired, but it was superseded by Gov. Chris Sununu’s statewide mask executive order in November.

By passing the citywide ordinance again, Concord’s order would extend several months after the state’s ordinance ends in March.

The council did not change the ordinance to take into account people who have been vaccinated; Bouley said doing that would be up to guidance from the state’s public health officials.

“I think that prudence dictates that we continue the mask mandate,” Councilor Byron Champlin said.

New public records attorney

City Manager Tom Aspell proposed the creation of a new position: assistant city solicitor. The position would handle criminal and civil matters. The lawyer would help the city prosecutor on criminal cases but also take on new roles handling right to know requests the city receives, Aspell said.

City Solicitor James Kennedy said the move was important due to the roll-out of Felonies First. Despite that program, which was meant to reduce over-prosecution, many prosecutor’s departments had been increasing staff, not reducing it, Kennedy said.

“Right now, we’re seeing a great need of prosecutors,” Kennedy said. “It’s been a tremendous backlog of cases, as you all can imagine.”

Kennedy added that the city is also “seeing a great need on the civil side, especially with the police department concerning right-to-know requests and transparency there,” he said. “It’s taking up quite a bit of time for my office.”

Aspell said the position would likely focus on criminal matters to start, but could expand into civil matters down the line.

Downtown LED lights

The council also approved a $718,000 project to replace downtown lighting with LED lights.

Beth Greenblatt, managing director of Beacon Integrated Solutions, the city’s energy advisor, said that the 10-year project finally has a price tag. Half would be paid for via a grant from Unitil, with the rest being billed monthly on the city’s monthly utility invoice, at zero percent interest, Greenblatt said.

Greenblatt said the installation would save the city $616,386 over 10 years, and that those savings would increase once the cost was paid off.

With the project approved, the city is now putting out a request for proposals from lighting companies. The project is expected to be completed this year.

Concord already has LED street lights on Main Street, as well as in the general service parking lot, Deputy City Manager Brian LeBrun noted.

New conservation land

The council approved the use of $49,900 to acquire conservation land adjacent to the District 5 road, on the Hopkinton town line at the top of Beach Hill. The property would join 1,950 acres currently under conservation in Concord, Aspell said.

The property is being sold sold by Eric Leadbetter.

Jim Auers, vice chairman of the Concord Conservation Commission, said buying the property was important to stitching together the city’s conservation land. “We’re slowly connecting the dots here,” he said.

Auers added that purchasing the property would allow public access to a snowmobile road that heads into Hopkinton. And he pointed to valuable timber on the property as an added incentive.

Rob Knight, chairman of the Concord Trails Committee, said the property would allow trail connectivity between the West End Farm Trail to the District 5 trail, as well as access to the top of Beech Hill, and said the snowmobile trail is used by runners, hikers and cyclists.

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