East Haddam Amends Regulations to Ease Limits on Hobby Farms, 4-H

EAST HADDAM – Town Planner James Ventres said that under East Haddam’s current regulations, he had to tell several families that they couldn’t keep a farm animal for a 4-H project because they didn’t have enough space to meet the town’s setback requirements for animal shelters.

On Wednesday night, the town Planning and Zoning Commission agreed to loosen those setbacks for small “hobby farms,” including 4-H students. The commission also agreed to tighten setback regulations for new, larger animal operations – an effort to prevent a repeat of an incident several years ago when someone tried to move thousands of chickens into a residential property.

The current rules governing agriculture are one size fits all – any structure for animals has to be set back 100 feet from any road and 75 feet from a rear or side property line, said Ventres. The new regulations are meant to accommodate smaller, less intensive “hobby farms,” which the regulations define as housing no more than 25 poultry and rabbits, or up to two large-bodied animals. 

Ventres told the commission that the 75 foot buffer may have been set in the “old days” as an attempt to keep any kind of farming outside of the one-acre residential zones, or to provide a 75 foot buffer for manure piles because wells could be close to the property lines.

The setbacks effectively make it impossible for anyone with a 1-acre property with 150 feet of frontage to build any kind of structure for farm animals, he said. Ventres told CT Examiner in a recent conversation that the issue has mainly come up with parents whose children are working on a 4-H project, and he’s had to tell them the regulations simply don’t allow it.

“I don’t know how many times someone has come in and wants to have a goat or a few chickens for a 4-H project, and they can’t have it,” he said.

Instead of having one-size setbacks, under the new regulations, hobby farms could have smaller setbacks – 75 feet from a street, 40 feet from the property lines, and at least 100 feet from existing, neighboring residences. The new rules should allow for some more flexibility for those small hobby farms, he said.

Emily Alger, the 4-H program coordinator for Middlesex County, said East Haddam has always done a great job looking out for 4-H students. Alger said there are young people in East Haddam raising everything from rabbits and poultry to horses and cattle as a part of their 4-H livestock project.

“I get the spirit of the law, so that people don’t build a three-sided lean-to right on the property line and then there’s an issue,” Alger said. “But we have extremely diverse sizes of property, anywhere from hundreds of acres down to way less than an acre. I think it’s great that if you have an educational project, you don’t have to put your chicken coop on your front doorstep because that’s the only place far enough away from your property line.”

The livestock projects aren’t just a way for the students to learn about the animals they raise, they learn skills that transfer into other parts of life – it’s an opportunity to learn how to keep records, and to learn how to speak in public, she said.

Because the 4-H students learn from UConn researchers, it’s also an opportunity to share the latest research with the students, who in turn share that with the community.

“You want to know where your vegetables come from, you want to know how the person took care of them, how they kept the bugs away,” Alger said. “All of those things are really important, and when kids have projects like that, they have the opportunity to educate the public on all of their practices and their best management.”

The new regulations also add restrictions for manure storage on “intensive” farm operations – meaning larger farms with more than 200 poultry or 20 large livestock, or that require a building larger than 5,000 square feet. 

Under the new regulations, those farms must keep their animal waste storage or treatment more than 225 feet from the street line and 300 feet from any other property line. The commission can also require those operations to plant a 100 foot buffer with trees and shrubs around any property line, but can also reduce the setback to 100 feet from the property line if the adjoining property is open space or unsuitable for development.

Ventres said about 8 years ago someone came to the town and asked to bring in 500 chickens to create a specialty hatchery on a property in a residential zone. 

“The next thing you know, he had 10,000 chickens,” Ventres said.

The operation was abiding by the 75 foot buffers, but didn’t have proper manure management or sufficiently address runoff issues. The farm became a major nuisance in the residential area before the state shut it down, Ventres said.

The new regulations wouldn’t affect existing farms, but if someone else came in looking to develop an intensive animal operation, the regulations would give the commission a chance to look at the proposal and make sure it’s properly managing issues of stormwater and manure management, he said. 

“We don’t want to discourage you, but we want to have an idea of how this is going to work,” he said.

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