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Jim Kenyon: Playing Chicken

Horses, cows and pigs, I get. But chickens? Why would a group of Hanover residents want rules to discourage people from raising chickens in some semi-rural parts of town?

Perhaps they’re worried about bird flu.

I suspect, though, it falls more into the we-don’t-want-anything-that-might-mess-with-our-property-values category.

Apparently, Hanover hasn’t heard that hens are hip. In cities from New York to Los Angeles, backyard farming is all the rage. Then again, Hanover isn’t exactly the Seattle of the East. (Although a few summers ago, the town did try to sell vegetables out of its concrete parking garage under the banner of a farmers market.)

On Tuesday, Hanover voters will be asked to approve a change to the town’s zoning ordinance that would prohibit “non-household or farm animals” from being kept on lots of less than three acres in so-called “rural residential” areas. Supporters have written the proposed amendment so that poultry — unlike other barnyard animals — wouldn’t be absolutely forbidden. But before bringing in anything fowl, residents would have to get permission from the Hanover Zoning Board of Adjustment. I suppose that’s OK, as long as residents don’t mind being treated like second-graders who have to raise their hands to get the teacher’s permission to use the restroom.

The chicken crackdown seems a bit much. It’s not like chickens are running wild on the Hanover Inn veranda. (The town already has an ordinance that forbids the raising of poultry downtown.) The zoning change would cover much of Etna, Hanover Center and a large swath north of downtown that runs toward Lyme.

So how did the proposed amendment land on Tuesday’s Town Meeting ballot? Here’s the backstory:

Last summer, Hanover resident Rosanne Santos applied for a town permit to build a two-stall horse shed. Santos lives in a section of town known as Blueberry Hill, where she owns a four-bedroom house on a 2.15 acre corner lot. The Blueberry Hill subdivision, which dates to the 1960s, is situated on the ridges above Etna village.

According to town property records, Santos purchased the house in 2007 for $385,000, which I’m guessing from a drive through Blueberry Hill, puts it at the lower end of the neighborhood’s price spectrum.

In a letter to town officials, Santos said it took her five years and $20,000 to prepare the land behind her house for horses. “The beauty and serenity of this project will only enhance this neighborhood,” she wrote.

Not all Blueberry Hill residents shared her sentiment. Two abutters — Bryce and Louise Wing and Vincent and Jeanne Vieten — appealed the town’s decision to issue Santos a zoning permit.

At a public hearing in November, Santos’ neighbors argued that horses would adversely effect their properties. Much of their opposition was based on, well, manure. They pointed to the town’s book of zoning ordinances, which on page 42 covered the very thing they were worried about: “No manure shall be piled or stored with 100 feet of any highway or within 300 feet of any neighboring residence for more than 14 days.”

The board denied the neighbors’ appeal, partially on the grounds that it couldn’t reject an application for a zoning permit “based on speculation” that Santos might keep her horse manure around for more than a couple of weeks.

I imagine horse manure could quickly pile up — if Santos planned to bring in a couple of Clydesdales. Hoping to dig deeper into the manure issue, I knocked on Santos’ door. No one answered. I also sent an email to Santos and left a phone message. I didn’t hear back.

In February, 30 Hanover residents (five more than needed to get on the ballot) signed a petition that called for a proposed zoning change to be decided on Town Meeting Day. “The keeping of horses, cows, pigs, sheep, etc., in such residential neighborhoods with lots of less than three acres, will cause too great a negative impact on the health, safety and property values of the neighbors due to the resulting manure, urine, smell and pests,” they wrote. (Tuesday’s voting is from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the Hanover High gym.)

At a March 12 public hearing, the Planning Board voted to recommend that residents not adopt the amendment. “This smells a bit like spot zoning,” the board wrote.

The Hanover Landowners Association, which was started in 2008, also opposes the amendment. If Blueberry Hill residents don’t want farm animals in their subdivision that’s their business, but “don’t impose (the restrictions) on the rest of us,” said association President Dave Cioffi, who lives in Etna. “We moved out here for the rural life.”

As Santos pointed out in her letter to town officials, Blueberry Hill’s own subdivision regulations, which go back to 1967, allow for property owners to keep “dogs, cats, two horses or ponies.”

I figured Blueberry Hill resident Bryce Wing, a lawyer, would be the best guy to ask about what’s going on in the neighborhood. But Wing, who has been among the people leading the charge for the zoning change, wasn’t in when I stopped by his Lebanon office and he didn’t return phone calls. I emailed Jeanne Vieten, but didn’t hear back from her, either.

From Blueberry Hill’s standpoint, it could all be moot soon. Santos’ house is for sale and under contract, according to her Realtor, Angeli & Associates in New London.

From looking at the property, it appears to be a tight fit for a pair of horses, anyway. The sloped backyard doesn’t offer much room for grazing.

On the other hand, the yard seems plenty big enough for chickens.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at Jim.Kenyon@Valley.net.