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'Cluck!' Chicken Owners See Fox In Draft Regs

Health Board head says outcry unwarranted; existing law allowing cluckers is the same as draft.

Q: Why did the chicken cross the road?

A: Because new draft regulations forced her out of Belmont.

And that is the alleged fate of more than two dozen brood of hens in Belmont if draft health regulations on exotic animals living in town are adopted by the town, raising the cackles of Belmont's growing chicken-owning population who fear the worse from the new regs.

"The new language paints all (animals) with a very wide brush," said Washington Street's Joan Teebagy who has a coop with five Red Star hens.

But the town's chief health official says the pro-chicken group is largely crying wolf if they believe his board's actions is introducing a regulatory fox into the town's chicken coops. 

"I am shocked and amazed at what ... is a none issue," said Dr. David Alper, chairman of Belmont's Board of Health.

"The draft regulation is absolutely not anti-chicken," said Alper.

The Board is set to introduce that draft set of regulations (see the accompanying pdf on this web page) on a long list of exotic animals at its monthly meeting at 5:30 p.m. on Monday, April 30, in the Selectmen's Room in Town Hall, rules which have run foul of the fowl set who fear their hens are on the government's chopping block.

After reading the proposal that was distributed via social media and the Internet, the chicken-owning population – currently 28 households have been licensed to keep up to five hens in registered structures – and their supporters suggest the new rules will make it near impossible to retain or build a chicken coop within the town's borders, said Teebagy, a long-time chicken campaigner, who is raising five Red Star hens on her property.

While chickens have been roosting in Belmont since it was incorporated in 1859, the recent sustainability movement help inspired a small but growing number of families to seek town permission to keep hens in the past decade. 

The popularity of chicken raising was evident in October 2010 when Belmont Public Library's "Hen House Tour" brought out record numbers to view some of the coops around town.

Since then, 10 more households have ventured into chicken raising as residents seek their own fresh eggs or to undertake a family-fun activity.

The chicken supporter's chief worry is that proposed minimum set backs requiring the coops to be more than 30 feet from a main road and 100 feet from a neighbor's property line is far-too restrictive to keep a brood of hens on a typical suburban house lot.

Evanthia Malliris, whose family has had their flock since 2007, has located her coop in a hallow in the back portion of her property along Pleasant Street, only a few feet from adjacent properties and well within the 100-foot road restriction.

"Where will we be able to put it?" said Malliris, who said abutters are supportive of the abode's placement.

Teebagy is also worried that the regulations could in the future place limitations on farm animals such as goat and sheep that are currently on the Week's Meadow off Somerset Street on Belmont Hill and at Belmont Acres Farm, the former Sergi Farm.

The language is so broad, she said, "that I could see all animals not housed inside as being restricted from living in Belmont."

But for Alper, the reaction of the pro-chicken contingency has been unnecessary since the draft regulations are the same as the existing code.

"The language in the bylaw predates me that that goes back 25 years," said Alper, who was re-elected in April's Town Election to another three year term as chairman.

He said the set backs from property lines are no different what currently exists, "regulations under-which they were given permission to build these structures," said Alper.

It's up to John

The key to applying the regulations, both previously and under any draft code, is through the expertise of John Maguranis, Belmont’s animal control officer.

"Truth be told, we leave (the application of the regulations) up to John," said Alper.

According to Malliris, Maguranis – the town's officer for the past decade – comes with a check list to go over, "wanting to make sure that the animals are protected and we know our responsibilities," she said.

"He didn't come with a ruler ready to measure how far (the coop) was to the house next door," said Malliris.

Alper said the set backs allows Maguranis to "make suggestions on where the structures should be located. We don't want people building (coops) under a neighbor's window and the set back restrictions assists (Maguranis) in his work."

But while Teebagy admits that the past enforcement has not been a burden on her or others, her concern is that the language in the regs could be used by future boards and animal control officers in a much more strident manner "somewhere down the line."

"They can have the best intentions with the new draft (regulations) but we are looking at language which will be around long after those who wrote it are gone," said Teebagy.

The reason Belmont is reviewing its regulations has nothing to do with the more than 100 chickens happily pecking away as the town has not received a fowl complaint from those abutting the coops. Rather, it was a pot-bellied pig taking a daily constitution fof the past year that brought the town's regulations back into the open.

After reviewing the by-law on their pig situation, the board determined that the language and scope of the rules could use updating. 

"We simply wanted to bring the regulations up to speed," Alper noted, saying the regulation are more than 30 years old.

The purpose of the draft regulations is three fold; protecting the owner, the animals and all residents.

"We want those owning pets to realize what is expected of them in keeping them and teach them about their animals," said Alper, noting that pot bellied pigs can be territorial and can pick up a pseudo-rabies that they need to be vaccinated for.

Belmont – which until the beginning of the 20th century was occupied by farm animals on numerous farms – has had its share of out-of-the-ordinary "pets": a horse was stabled in Waverley Square until recently, llamas have wandered the high plateaus of Belmont Hill and there are reptiles of all sorts and sizes.

Currently roosters are the only animal specifically prohibited being housed in Belmont, "but don't think about bringing home a Bengal tiger and expecting the board to permit it to stay," said Alper. That same restriction goes for chimpanzees, lions, buffaloes and other "big" animals.

"That's why we have the set back requirements," said Alper.

Acknowledging that her flock will likely be grandfathered by the new regulations, Teebagy – who is also a beekeeper and dabbles with raising goats on Belmont Acres Farms – feels like so many who have invested the time and expense in bringing chickens back to Belmont.

"If they admit that the old system wasn't broken, why fix it?" she asked.

Correction: The new setback would be 30 feet from a main road and 100 feet from a neighbor's property line. The original article reversed the distances.

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