P&Z Watch: “Chicken Coops and Rats. They Go Together Like Peanut Butter and Jelly.”

Tuesday’s Planning & Zoning commission meeting included a text amendment concerning domestic animals – dogs, cats, sheep, goats, horses and poultry – “animals that have been selectively bred and adapted over generations to live alongside humans.”

Last year, after multiple complaints to the Board of Selectmen about noisy roosters, P&Z drafted the text amendment.

Ms Alban described Connecticut as friendly to farming and discouraged towns from over regulating. She added that the town hadn’t had many complaints about chickens; only roosters.

The proposed text amendment would limit roosters to properties with 4 acres. There was little discussion until public comment when resident Aron Boxer said he was discouraged that his neighbor’s roosters would be grandfathered.

Screenshot from video shared with P&Z of a chicken coop with 9 chickens with no setback from a neighbor’s property line in Cos Cob.

A commission discussed possible setback distance requirements for chicken coops depending on the residential zones.

There were some chuckles that the commission was even discussing poultry, but that was before Kevin Dillon of Indian Field Road shared his story.

The tenor of the conversation changed.

Mr. Dillon said his next door neighbor’s chicken coop and rat nests seriously impacted his family’s quality of life.

Like Mr. Boxer, Mr. Dillon was surprised that even if setbacks were imposed, his neighbors coop would be grandfathered.

Mr. Dillon said four years ago his neighbor bought 9 chickens and installed the coop with no setback from his property line.

“That chicken coop is 10 feet from my bedroom window. That chicken coop is closer to my house than the actual house that owns those chickens,” he said.

Mr. Dillon said the Health Dept had visited and focused on whether the coop was clean.

“It is not so much that a dirty chicken coop will encourage rats to come. Chicken coops encourage rats to come. They come because chickens are food for rats. Chicken feces are food for rats – so is chicken feed.”

(Rats will attack and eat baby chickens, and if desperate enough, they will attack adult chickens. They are more likely to eat chicken feed than to attack adult chickens, as that requires more effort and rats are opportunists.)

Mr. Dillon said noise was also a factor.

“If they’re hungry and the owners aren’t there, they will squawk until they come back,” he said, adding that once or twice a week a fox or coyote will visit the chicken coop around 3:00 or 4:00am. “This will either cause the neighbor or myself to scare the fox away before the chickens will calm down,” he said.

“We actually have five rat bait boxes in our yard,” he added.

“What I’m experiencing now is that the rights of the people with chickens supersede those who actually deal with the ancillary benefits – meaning the stink and the fact that I can’t open my bedroom window because it smells like a chicken coop,” he continued. “We have rats that come onto our property. We have rat nests.

“I have a dog that can’t go onto our property because the rat poison that comes from the bait boxes scatters throughout the yard and it’s disguised as food, so the dog can actually eat the poison.”

“Oh my lord,” Alban said.

Mr. Dillon said his exterminator refused to place a bait box within five feet of the property line where the neighbor’s coop is in order not to hurt the chickens.

“We also have rat traps inside our basement just in case the rats decide to stop going into the chicken coop and come into our house,” he added.

“So I can’t have my dog go into our basement because, once again, the rat traps are baited with food with rat poison in them and if he actually touches them he could lose a paw and get disfigured.”

“We have a home where we can’t open a quarter of the windows. We can’t use the front or back yard because there is rat poison on them,” Mr. Dillon continued.

He said his deck had become “an enormous bird feeder” because of the chicken feed.

“What you have is hundreds of birds every day on my deck, on my deck furniture and on my roof. There is bird feces constantly. If we want to have people on our deck, we have to hose down our deck, our deck furniture for about a half an hour and hopefully clean it up and have our guests out there for about a half an hour or so before the birds come back.”

Mr. Dillon said other towns had rules requiring 75 ft setbacks that have stood up to legal scrutiny for decades and allowed neighbors to co-exist nuisance free.

“Yet somehow my neighbor who decided to put chickens on my property line is being protected, and I can’t use my yard,” he said.

Mr. Dillon said he also had skunks. “They feed on chickens,” he said.

“Somebody can be very flippant about the fact that chickens are making sounds, unless you have one living right under your bedroom window,” Dillon said.

Mr. Dillon said he believed the setback in Stamford was 75 feet in zones where chickens were permitted.

Ms Alban said staff surveyed all town planners in the state and the setbacks varied.

Mr. Yeskey said rural towns were irrelevant.

“It’s misery for this guy,” Yeskey added. “I’d be really upset if someone did this in my area what this man has to put up with…We’re not a farm. We ought to think about going to a higher setback.”

“I’m completely sympathetic to a much greater setback: 75 to 100 ft,” said commissioner Bob Barolak. “And if your property is too small, you can’t have chickens.”

“Everyone who has chickens now is going to be grandfathered,” Alban said.

“We’re not farming country. I feel for this guy,” Yeskey said.

“We’ve got to look at case law,” Alban said.

Mr. Dillon said he was also concerned about his property value.

“Who would be willing to market value to have a yard full of rats with rat poison, chickens on its property line, and noise and squawking all day?” he asked.

“If our primary duty in Greenwich is to protect the public health and safety. This man is presenting a serious public health issue,” Yeskey said.

Ms Alban said a state law was passed in 2017 precluded Greenwich P&Z from eliminating grandfathered non conforming uses.

However, she agreed, “The rats are a health threat.”

Mr. Dillon said the Health Dept had visited his property multiple times.

“The only thing they can urge is whether the coop is deemed clean. The rats are on my property… They can’t cite the property owners at 21 (next door) because they’re maintaining a ‘clean coop.'”

“It’s not a dirty coop that attracts rats. I’s chicken coops in general. Chickens are a food source for rats. If you Google chickens and rats, they go together like peanut butter and jelly. They go hand in hand,” Mr. Dillon said.

“I’m in this unbelievable untenable position where I have no recourse. My neighbor doesn’t have to do anything. And I have no protection.”

“I’m going to contact the town attorney tomorrow morning,” Alban promised. “And we can go through our file on all the towns that have regulations.”

Ms DeLuca also acknowledged the health issue.

“Certainly we will try to talk to the property owner,” she said. “Animal Control is something that should pursued again. We’ve had dumpsters with rat infestations downtown that the Health Dept was extremely responsive to.”

Ms DeLuca said previously there was a health issue with someone overfeeding pigeons that was resolved by the Health Dept.

“The pigeons were flocking all over the house. There was pigeon excrement all over the neighboring houses and because of all the bird food strewn everywhere, there were rats…That was a health violation,” she said.

Ms Alban said the Law Dept had indicated the issue was one of zoning.

“We went round and round with the town attorney on this and finally decided that we had to do this in zoning because it’s a setback issue,” Alban said.

“With all respect to Barbara (Shellenberg) I think she’s dead wrong,” Barolak said.

“There is a big problem here that zoning can’t fix, but the town’s got to fix,” Yeskey said. “If it’s not the Health Dept, we have to go back to the Board of Selectmen, and we have to change whatever we need to change.”

“What’s coming off here is that town government doesn’t care about its citizens,” Yeskey said. “You have a moral responsibility to help this guy with this issue.”

“We really have to get the Health Dept to step in and intervene,” Alban said.

At the end of the discussion, the text amendment was left open. Ms Alban said the commission would revisit what other towns have for setbacks and she and Ms DeLuca would return to the Law Dept and Animal Control respectively.