Neighbors cry fowl, want chickens evicted from Cumberland Hill

Neighbors cry fowl, want chickens evicted from Cumberland Hill

Paromita Ghosh and David Dugre hold two of their five chickens in the backyard of their home at 86 Spring St. in Cumberland. Some neighbors are complaining about the chickens, but Ghosh and Dugre say they should be allowed to keep them here. (Breeze photos by Robert Emerson)
Controversy brings issue back into spotlight

CUMBERLAND – A neighborhood kerfuffle over backyard chickens and a deadlocked vote on the issue last week has some officials questioning whether local rules on keeping the clucking birds might need to be revamped.

David Dugre and Paromita Ghosh have had five chickens housed in a backyard coop at 86 Spring St. for about the past year after moving into the home two years ago, a situation that’s angered some neighbors over what they say is a diminished quality of life.

Last week, on April 28, Dugre and Ghosh went to the Planning Board seeking a favorable recommendation to the Zoning Board of Review for a dimensional variance from required side yard setbacks to legalize their existing chicken coop.

The board, with eight members present, ended up deadlocked at 4-4 on the recommendation, meaning the matter will now be going to the Zoning Board with no recommendation from the Planning Board but a synopsis of what transpired there.


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One neighbor, Shannan Beverly, claimed the chickens are attracting the interest of wild animals to the neighborhood, including foxes and fisher cats, as seen on her property cameras, and that rats have also been found dead in her yard. She said she’s afraid to let her children play outside and her family is unable to enjoy the use of their deck and yard because the wild animals are coming through and trying to get through the fence into the yard with the domesticated ones.

Dugre and Ghosh say there’s no evidence in Beverly’s videos that the animals are stopping on their way through the neighborhood to try to get through their fence, and that when they do walk through, they’re on a direct course with other homes that have chicken coops.

Planning Board members didn’t seem to be putting much stock in the complaints about wild animals that are plentiful in Cumberland, but several gave more attention to the pictures of rats and claims of smells coming from the chicken coop.

Dugre flatly denies that smell could be a problem for anyone.

“It’s in my backyard, so I would know,” he later told The Breeze. “All I can say is, if you put your head in the chicken coop, you can get some of that bad smell.”

Dugre said he was surprised at the opposition from Beverly and two other people to his family’s attempts to live a more self-sustaining lifestyle, saying he doesn’t understand why a legally allowed activity, such as raising of chickens, is proving so controversial in a Cumberland Hill neighborhood where there are at least two other residents with backyard coops. The other day, he said, they spotted a drone flying over their backyard.

“I don’t really get it,” he said. “Is this what we’re resorting to?”

Dugre and Ghosh apparently got off on the wrong foot with neighbors by previously having a rooster, which they say they’ve moved to a relative’s home after not realizing when it was born that it was a rooster.

Having received a violation notice from the town for having an unauthorized coop too close to property lines, but with the allowable five chickens now in their 4-foot-wide coop, the couple is seeking relief from the town on the requirement that the coop be 25 feet from the property line, and that it instead be 18 feet from each side line on this 40-foot-wide house lot.

Neighbor Bridget Dunbar, of 84 Spring St., testified that she hasn’t experienced any smells from the coop and hasn’t seen an influx of wildlife.

Board member Chris Butler said he couldn’t vote yes on the recommendation when the town’s comprehensive plan is largely silent on the issue of backyard chickens. The town’s chicken ordinance only passed a few years back, he said, with the Town Council wrestling with it for a long time through a series of public meetings, where the 25-foot distance was settled on “for a reason.”

The town’s 2009 ordinance on animals in residential zones states that “a maximum of five birds, fowl or other animals may be kept for each single-family dwelling unit provided that no roosters shall be kept, and provided that such allowable livestock are housed and that any building and/or enclosures which house such livestock be located no less than 25 feet from the property line. Properties containing more than one residential unit do not qualify under this provision.”

Butler said he understands the applicant is only seeking 7 feet of relief on either side of the yard, but there’s a reason town officials went with 25 feet as a minimum, because they realized that lots with less space than that are too small for raising chickens.

Planning and Community Development Director Jonathan Stevens took exception to Butler’s assertion that one can find anything they want to in the comprehensive plan to support a case. He said the plan advocates for this type of activity from residents.

Member Roy Costa noted that while rats aren’t attracted to chickens, they love stealing freshly laid eggs and chicken feed, asking the owners if they’ve noticed any eggs being taken. Dugre said they did notice “a rat or two” had gotten in at one point, but they subsequently put down pavers and installed wire mesh to keep them out. As a new chicken owner, Ghosh said they learned the hard way how to make the coop secure.

Karen DePasquale, owner of 88 Spring St. next door to the applicants, said she’s had a tenant at that home for 10 years, and never had to speak to them as much as she has over the last couple of months over complaints about chickens and the rooster. She said the chickens are preventing tenants from enjoying full use and enjoyment of their property, particularly with the smell, and are also devaluing the property. The lot is tiny, she said, not even 4,000 square feet, and she’s asking officials to reject the request.

Butler responded that the board was only there to make a recommendation to zoning on whether the request is consistent with the comprehensive plan, and it will ultimately be up to that board to decide if the variance is granted.

Stevens had said that a favorable recommendation was in order, saying the comprehensive plan notes the significant loss of historic agricultural land in Cumberland and promotes the preservation of existing farms.

"While the comprehensive plan is silent on small-scale urban agriculture, the basic tenets of the plan are to promote environmental stewardship and encourage residents to attain a sustainable lifestyle," he wrote in his memo. "Within its immediate context, the chicken coop is well-screened from neighbors by an eight-foot fence and its presence should not diminish the quality and character of the neighborhood."

Chairman David Coutu noted for the record that the rooster is no longer at the property.

Ellyn Paris, the tenant at 88 Spring St., agreed with her landlord, saying she doubts whether the owners actually have only the five chickens they claim to, but Dugre said they would be happy to certify that they have only five.

Ghosh said she’s developed quite an attachment to the chickens after raising them from chicks, saying it makes her very happy to be around them. Speaking of animals that are frightening, she said, part of the reason they installed an 8-foot fence around their yard is because they have small dogs they are trying to keep safe from large and aggressive dogs nearby.

Beverly again asserted that she can’t risk her children’s safety by allowing them in the yard with the chance of being attacked by a fisher cat, saying the safety of her family and neighbors is at risk.

Coutu responded that there are other departments Beverly can call if she’s having a problem with wildlife, but the board is looking strictly at whether the proposal is consistent with the comprehensive plan’s goals and objectives.

Member Gregory Scown said he understands that this single-family neighborhood is zoned for animals, but homes here are also built on very small lots. It seems there isn’t enough land here “to accommodate what zoning allows,” he said, as the development of the plat clearly preceded the town’s zoning ordinance.

Member Ken Bush said he too is sympathetic to what neighbors are facing, but if the lot in question was 14 feet wider, there would be no issue. If the town wants to change the ordinance to say chickens aren’t allowed in this zone, that’s one thing, he said, but even if this property was a bit wider, there’s no reason to believe the same conditions wouldn’t be in place. He noted how he has fisher cats, coyotes and foxes at his own home, and no one around him has chickens. This is where the animals live, he said, and they find food where they can find it.

Stevens agreed, saying he sees a lack of correlation between the chicken coop and the presence of animals. If the chicken coop is managed well and not damaged, giving animals access, he said, the only issue is the lack of side yard setbacks. Cumberland, as with other communities, is dealing with wildlife adapting to the reality of new development and living a suburban life, he said, adding that he’s having a hard time pinning “what’s going on generally throughout Cumberland” on one family.

“As am I,” said Coutu. “It’s the nature of the beast, so to speak, in the town of Cumberland.”

Member Harry MacDonald said he’s concerned about the claims of smell and rats. He said he rarely goes against the recommendation of planners, but he couldn’t agree to a positive recommendation.

“We’ve seen a picture of one dead rat,” Bush responded, questioning MacDonald's premise.

But MacDonald said there’s clearly some animosity from neighbors and there seems to be some merit to what they’re claiming. Scown agreed, saying that just because there’s a fence doesn’t mean there can’t be odor or an attraction of animals, and those can impact quality of life.

Member Steven D’Ambrosia said he finds the space acceptable for a chicken coop, noting that there are plenty of examples elsewhere of an “urban farmstead” where a clean and sanitary coop provides adequate space for chickens. He said it’s not realistic to require a larger space.

A visit by The Breeze on Tuesday found little or no noticeable smell coming from the coop.

When Scown last week suggested that it’s not up to the Planning Board to take up the wider issue of changing rules on chickens, Solicitor Kelley Morris Salvatore responded that it’s actually fully within the board’s purview to recommend changes to the zoning ordinance.

Coutu said the town will have to hold the broader discussion at some point, because officials can’t just pick and choose who’s allowed to have chickens and who isn’t if they’re all entitled to it. Morris Salvatore said items such as number of allowed chickens could be discussed at some point.

Bush made the motion to make a positive recommendation to zoning, and he was joined by Coutu, D’Ambrosia, and Maria Vracic, Vracic saying she’s tempted to get some chickens herself. But Scown, MacDonald, Butler and Costa voted no, leaving the vote in a stalemate.

Morris Salvatore said the next step would be to have the Planning Department draft a memo to the Zoning Board neither recommending nor opposing the request, but summing up their discussions with neighbors. Zoning will then schedule a meeting to consider the request, but with no official recommendation to review.

David Dugre places one of his chickens back into the coop as his wife Paromita Ghosh watches.
The platform where the chickens deposit their eggs.

Comments

My neighbor used to keep chickens, and soon after, our neighborhood was overrun with rats. My garden was eaten by rats who nicely left their "presents" for us all over my yard and garden. These smaller house lots are NOT conducive to raising farm animals. If you would like to do that, then please move to a much bigger lot that has proper boundaries for your neighbors. We all have to live together - why not make it pleasant for everyone.

If your neighbors are complaining, then you should just stop doing it.

Chicken coops this small do not smell and the claims of wildlife attraction are over exaggerated. These people that are complaining have no problem with dog owners walking by and allowing dogs to defecate and urinate on their front lawns. It's a shame that these chicken owners are being harrassed for trying to be organic and responsible. The public only wants to go the market and buy neatly packaged eggs, meat and milk - not caring how factory farmed animals suffer immensely during that process.

"If your neighbors are complaining, then you should just stop doing it."

I'm officially complaining about jafredrikson's comments in the Valley Breeze. Yet, I bet jafredrikson won't take their own advice.

On that scale ( 5 chickens) cost more to keep them than the cost of eggs they produce . Want a pet? get a cat.

Your comment makes no sense. Did my comment keep you awake like the sound of a rooster crowing all day?
You’re not even my neighbor. Smh.

Jafredrickson, we're all neighbors. You wrote that if neighbors are complaining, then you should stop doing it. That's literally what you wrote. So I'm telling you that I'm complaining about your comments here, so stop commenting. It's that easy. What's good for the goose, is good for the gander (pun intended).