By Paul Tennant
---- — NORTH ANDOVER — The biggest draw at the annual Town Meeting on May 21 will probably be ... chickens.
Chickens are legal in North Andover, but current regulations are very restrictive. Only residents with 3 acres or more can keep chickens on their property and they are only allowed one chicken per acre.
Article 28, if it wins at least two-thirds approval, would allow residents to have as many as six hens, regardless of the size of their lots. Those owning 3 acres or more would be permitted to have three instead of just one hen per acre.
Roosters would not be allowed. Most North Andoverites probably don’t want to be awakened by the birds’ crowing.
Those who keep hens on their property would have to house them in a coop providing at least 4 square feet per bird.
Hope and Thomas Ralph, of 1483 Salem St., and their neighbors, Hillary and Christopher Stasonis, of 1514 Salem St., are leading the fight to expand chickendom in North Andover. They have been busy distributing signs that proclaim, “Say yes to chickens.”
Hillary Stasonis and Thomas Ralph, an attorney, drafted the proposed bylaw. Ralph said they researched other bylaws permitting chickens and he’s confident it will pass muster with any legal test.
Hope Ralph said they were inspired to allow more residents to have backyard hens because they want to “be more self-sustaining.” If some people fear that chickens will disturb them with all their clucking, their worry is unfounded, she said.
At least one study has shown that dogs are noisier than chickens, she said. She also noted that several nearby communities, including Boxford, Ipswich, Reading and Danvers, have voted to permit residents to keep chickens in their yards.
She pointed out that North Andover has an extensive agricultural heritage. She was brought up in Michigan, where her family raised sheep.
“I wanted my kids to have that kind of experience,” she said. Her sons, Eli, 10, and Luke, 7, both said they are looking forward to raising chickens.
Luke even said he won’t mind cleaning out the coop.
The Stasonises certainly believe in raising their own food. Their garden produces peas, beans, garlic, Swiss chard and watermelons among other edible items. They also have three beehives.
The Ralphs and Stasonises insist that eggs from hens in your own backyard are better than those sold at the supermarket.
“They just look better,” Hope Ralph said. The conditions in which commercial chickens are raised “are appalling,” her husband said.
Hillary Stasonis said she started the effort to liberalize North Andover’s chicken policy in September. Their Facebook page, NorthAndoverchickens.com, has received 169 “likes,” she said.
Eli Ralph, who just turned 10 Wednesday, said he looks forward to having chickens in his yard.
“It’s a pet that pays you back,” he said.
Thomas Ralph noted that as the numbers of farms and farmers in the United States have declined over the years, many people, especially younger folks, don’t grasp that food has to be grown.
“It is incredibly valuable to connect kids to the food supply,” he said.
The selectmen voted 4-1 April 22 to recommend the passage of the chicken bylaw. Chairman William Gordon, Rosemary Connelly Smedile, Richard Vaillancourt and Tracy Watson voted in favor, while Donald Stewart was opposed.
“I am all about the chickens,” Watson said. “I think it’s a great idea.”
Like Hope Ralph, she pointed out that farming is very much a part of North Andover’s heritage.
During her growing-up years, she said, there were “lots of chickens” in the town. She concurred with the Ralphs and Stasonises that eggs from a hen on one’s own property taste better than those bought at the store.
The Planning Board is expected to announce its recommendation at Town Meeting. Because the proposed bylaw affects zoning, a two-thirds majority is required for it to pass.
In other communities, Peter Carbone, a member of the Haverhill Board of Health, said his city’s health inspectors have dealt with a few complaints about residents keeping chickens in their homes – which is illegal.
This has occurred in the city’s Acre neighborhood, where recent immigrants are sometimes not aware of public health laws in their new country.
While the Haverhill Board of Health enacted regulations governing piggeries last year, the panel has not yet been asked to weigh in on chickens, Carbone said.
Andover also has had no chicken-related controversies, according to Paul Salafia, chairman of the Board of Selectmen.