2018-04-13 / Front Page

Residential farm animals

Idea advances at city council level
By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — A proposal to let landowners keep farm animals in a South Portland residential zone has cleared its first hurdle, although it has a ways to go before being codified into law.

At its Tuesday, April 10 workshop, the city council gave its collective blessing for Highland Avenue resident Jean Geslin to take his idea before the planning board, although several councilors suggested they may not rule in favor of the requested zoning change once it comes back to them for a formal vote.

“I would not accept this as it is,” said Councilor Claude Morgan. “I would be modifying it and eviscerating it dramatically.”

Even so, most on the council praised Geslin’s presentation, as did City Planner Tex Haeuser.

“I’d be happy for any applicant to come forward with as complete and well- crafted a proposal as this one,” he said.

Geslin said he and his wife, Lucy Sommo, bought their home, located within sight of the city’s new public works complex, in hopes their children might grow up to enjoy the same experience with farm animals he had as a boy on a dairy farm in France. Summo, from Appleton, is also used to a rural lifestyle. The couple chose South Portland, they said, because it is central to their jobs, is close enough to every urban amenity they could want, but still has some wooded areas and a small town feel.

They knew when buying their home in November 2015 that it was not zoned from farm animals, Geslin said, but hoped to secure a zoning amendment at some point. Now that their first child, Luka, is 3 months old, the time has come to apply for that change, Geslin said, in hopes of being able to keep “a few goats and maybe one or two sheep” on their 1.3-acre lot.

As drafted, the amendment – which Geslin said dovetails with the city’s comprehensive plan and its stated goal to encourage urban agriculture and backyard farming – would allow anyone in the city’s Residential A zone with at least 40,000 square feet to keep farm animals, such as goats, sheep, ducks, alpacas and pigs, in their backyard. Larger breeds, like horse and cattle, would require an additional 10,000 square feet per animal. Keeping such animals would require a city permit, which could be revoked if conditions for the care and housing of the animals are not met, including limits on noise and control of waste and odors. Minimum 20-foot setbacks from lot lines would be required for any backyard enclosures needed to house the animals.

According to Geslin, citing numbers backed by Haeuser, there are 106 lots in the Residential A zone that meet the 40,000-square-foot minimum for farm animals. However, only 30 of those properties would qualify as most of the larger lots belong to churches, city parks and small businesses. All farm animals allowed under the ordinance must be for personal, non-commercial use only.

Councilor Adrian Dowling said he was “very enthusiastic,” about the idea, adding, “This seems like a way to get back to how South Portland was not all that long ago, and it seems (based on Geslin’s presentation) like surrounding communities are doing this without too much problem.”

Others were not as quick to give a green light all the way to eventual passage, however.

“This is not the South Portland it was back in the ’50s. This is not even the South Portland it was in the ’70s,” said Mayor Linda Cohen, adding she “cannot guarantee support” even if the planning board weighs in with a positive recommendation.

Eight members of the audience rose to lend support to Geslin’s proposal. The lone voice of dissent was a Crestview Drive resident who lives within sight of Geslin’s home.

“If he wanted to have farm animals on his property he should have purchased property in a rural area, not in a residential area,” said resident Stan Jordan. “My neighbors and I should not have to put up with the noise and smell. We who bought homes in this area do not want to see our property values go down because of this public nuisance.”

“Clearly we have zoning and we have rules and regulation around zoning for a reason,” said Councilor Kate Lewis. “But I’m inclined to be neutral and hand this to the planning board for a more detailed and thorough review, rather than making a pronouncement (against it) as a council tonight.”

“I see the value of urban animal husbandry. I see the value of families that want to raise kids with a genuine understanding of farm-to-table,” said Morgan, who was mayor about 10 years ago, when the city adopted limited rules allowing residents to keep chickens.

That proposal had packed council chambers with naysayers who predicted such an allowance “would bring the city to its knees, from which it would never recover,” Morgan said, although he pointed out that such apocalyptic pronouncements never came to pass.

“But these animals are of a different scale and come with a different set of problems,” he said.

A hearing before the planning board has not been scheduled, but once that happens, Geslin could be back before the city council as soon as late spring, although he said he would not expect to get his first animals, “a couple of goats,” for another year or more.

Once a planning board hearing is scheduled, the city will send notice to all residents who live within 500 feet of one of the 30 lots that would qualify to keep farm animals.

Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at news@inthesentry.com.

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