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Jim Kenyon: Going Hog Wild in South Royalton

Published: 8/13/2016 11:44:45 PM
Modified: 8/13/2016 11:44:46 PM

In a South Royalton hillside neighborhood, where a dozen modest homes overlook the White River Valley, 39 new residents have moved in since last summer. That’s a lot of newcomers to absorb.

Especially when they’re pigs.

Talk about changing the character — and smell — of a residential neighborhood.

In many Upper Valley communities, local zoning regulations would quash a large pigsty in a residential area faster than you can fry a slice of bacon.

But over the years, Royalton residents have been among the holdouts. They don’t want local government telling them what they can or can’t do with their property. At least that’s the argument often used by zoning opponents.

Without a town zoning ordinance, there didn’t appear to be anything stopping Don Boule and his tenant, Sean Hurdle, from going whole hog into pig farming in the Trescott Lane-Aussie Lane neighborhood, which is just off Route 14.

They built a couple of pens on Boule’s 4-acre lot, which already included his house and another that Hurdle resides in, and started filling them up.

If it had only been a few pigs, their neighbors probably wouldn’t have minded. Folks who try to live off the land are generally tolerated, if not respected. It’s rural Vermont.

A while back, a family in the same neighborhood raised a couple of pigs to stock its freezer. “They did it in a responsible way,” said Fred Swett, a retired postal worker who has lived on Aussie Lane for a decade.

Swett, who lives directly downwind from one of the pig pens — and its manure pile — told me that he tried to work things out with Boule. “I hate having conflicts with a neighbor,” Swett said. “They want to be a farm, but they really don’t have the space. We just want them to get it down to something more manageable.”

Tammy Blakeney, a mental health counselor who grew up in Tunbridge, bought her first home three years ago for $173,000, across from Boule’s two houses. (Boule’s property has an assessed value of $276,300, according to town records.)

Boule and Hurdle put a pig pen in the woods behind Blakeney’s house. Last Wednesday morning, I walked around Blakeney’s yard, shortly after it had stopped raining.

“The rain has helped,” Blakeney said. “Usually, the smell is so bad you can’t come outside without gagging.”

After moving in, she built a large deck with the expectation that she’d enjoy plenty of grilling and outdoor summer dining. The odor and flies from the nearby pig pens and manure pile changed her plans.

“I cook my food and then run inside to eat,” she said. “Ten or 15 minutes outdoors is all you can stand.”

Neighbors reached out to the five-member Selectboard to see what, if anything, could be done. Board Chairman Larry Trottier and other board members checked out the neighbors’ complaints for themselves.

“They’ve got reason to be upset,” said Trottier, a 13-year board veteran who owns a John Deere dealership in town. “I can’t imagine sitting out there and having to put up with that smell. It’s a complete disregard for their neighbors.”

To its credit, the Selectboard has spent a fair amount of time at recent meetings trying to help. But absent a town zoning ordinance, the board was a bit hog-tied. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

State Rep. Sarah Buxton, whose district includes Royalton, joined the discussion. She suggested bringing in the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, which made several visits.

At last Monday’s Selectboard meeting, two agency representatives informed 20 residents that there wasn’t a lot the state could do at the moment. Boule and Hurdle were in compliance with current state agricultural regulations.

The state officials did offer some hope, though. This fall, Act 64, which deals with agricultural water quality, goes into effect. It will require Boule and Hurdle to create more distance between their farming enterprise, including the manure pile, and their neighbors’ property lines.

With only four acres to work with, Boule and Hurdle will likely find it difficult to comply with the new rules, state officials said.

The two wannabe farmers attended last Monday’s Selectboard meeting, and while the discussion was refreshingly civil, I got the sense that they wouldn’t give up their hogs without a fight.

Apparently, Boule and Hurdle think there’s money to be made in pigs. They could be right. In a quick Google search, I came across two Vermont farms advertising piglets for $100 apiece. At Monday’s meeting, Hurdle said they currently have 21 piglets for sale with more on the way. Their 39 pigs include three pregnant sows.

The best news for neighbors came when the board read a letter it had recently sent to Boule and Hurdle. After consulting with its attorney, Paul Giuliani, of Montpelier, the board determined that the pigs “constitute a public nuisance.”

In the July 26 letter, the board notified Boule and Hurdle that they have 30 days to “clean up your property, maintain sanitation, and abate off-site noxious odors (remove pig waste).”

Would they be willing to do that? the board asked.

“I’m willing to help, but I don’t think I should have to give up my food,” Boule replied.

“How many pigs do you eat a year?” a neighbor asked.

I wondered the same thing. But when I tried to talk with Boule and Hurdle after the meeting, they weren’t interested.

According to the Selectboard’s letter, the town will take legal action if the two men don’t clean up their act, so to speak.

It could get messy. Pigsties usually are.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com




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