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Backyard hen ordinance passes despite neighbor concerns

Date: 12/27/2023

AGAWAM — Facing a room full of residents with opinions both for and against allowing hens on residential lots, the City Council voted 10-1 on Dec. 18 to approve the proposed zoning ordinance.

Resident Linda Galarneau spoke against the proposal, saying it won’t help people burdened by grocery prices. She also argued that poultry feces contaminate the environment and that housing values fall when chickens are kept next door. She said her sister-in-law has dealt with chickens breaking out of their coop, digging holes in her yard and frightening her dog.

“No resident should have to go through the aggravation my sister-in-law goes through,” she said.

On the other hand, resident Ned Ehle, speaking on behalf of his wife Christine, said hens are a secure source of food and, when kept healthy, produce fresh and nutritious eggs. He said the requirement of a special permit from the Board of Appeals ensures people will take raising them seriously, and neighbors will be notified by the board of a hearing so they will have the opportunity to speak up.

“Neighbors are free to contact the town as needed, as they would to report any other violation of the law,” he said.

Councilor Robert Rossi said the majority of Agawam residents are against the ordinance. He also said there were no methods of enforcement in the ordinance that will protect neighbors. As well, he said chickens were messy, can be foul-smelling, and can transfer fatal diseases to humans. These comments inspired some heckling from the audience.

Councilor Anthony Russo, a sponsor of the ordinance alongside Councilor Cecilia Calabrese, said the ordinance gives the health inspector, building inspector and animal control officer the ability to enforce it. He reiterated what Ehle said about opportunities for neighbors, and that people can contact him to ensure the town deals with violations. He also said that the vast majority of residents were actually in favor, and that the ordinance takes into the consideration of people who were against it.

Council President Chris Johnson said that enforcement measures like fines and criminal charges already exist for all zoning ordinances, and would apply to this one, too. He said he initially didn’t support the ordinance, but does now that a special permit is required. He also said the town will inspect each backyard henkeeper twice a year, once with the animal control officer and once with the Health Department.

“Do I think raising chickens is a wonderful thing? No, but the reality is this at least provides some order to the chaos,” he said.

The new law allows hens in Residence A1 and A2 districts. They must be contained in a coop with 3 square feet per chicken, connected to an enclosed chicken run of at least 10 square feet, set back 15 feet from property lines.

Previous law restricted poultry to agricultural properties of 5 acres or more. Under the new law, homeowners with less than half an acre can keep six hens; larger lots up to 1 acre can have 12 hens; and bigger properties can have up to 18 hens. Hens in residential areas can be kept only for household use, not for commercial purposes. Only hens are allowed, not roosters.

The council voted 10-1 in favor of the ordinance, with Rossi delivering the “no” vote.

In other business, councilors voted to adopt a housing production plan. Among other things, the plan proposes more condos and mixed-use buildings to increase the number of low-cost dwellings. It can also be used to prevent “Chapter 40B” developments — affordable housing projects that are allowed to ignore local zoning and environmental restrictions in towns, like Agawam, that the state deems not to have enough affordable housing. Residents Corinne Wingard and Guy Quisguard spoke in favor of the plan.

Councilor Rosemary Sandlin, chair of the Housing Committee, said the plan needed to be done and the town worked extensively with the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission on it.

“I’m encouraging all of you to not only vote for this but implement some of the projects,” she said.

Councilors voted 11-0 in favor of the plan.

The council also voted 11-0 to establish a school zone at Agawam High School. The ordinance amends the town code in order to impose a 20 mph speed limit on sections of Mill Street and Cooper Street, when a school zone sign’s lights are flashing. The vote is one of a series of proposals to protect people crossing the street, especially during sporting events.