Waterville resident Danielle Bragg submitted this photo as part of a complaint to the city that her neighbor, former City Councilor Phil Bofia, built a chicken coop in violation of the city ordinance.

WATERVILLE — City councilors took an initial vote Tuesday to reduce the minimum lot size for keeping chickens from 10,000 to 8,000 square feet, but even if they finalize that action later this month, Phil Bofia won’t be able to keep his chickens.

That’s because Bofia lives on a 5,000-square-foot lot on Pleasantdale Avenue and says he started keeping six chickens there before discovering the city has rules regarding the practice. The city’s zoning ordinance says people may keep no more than six chickens for laying eggs only and the chickens must be kept in enclosed areas. Henhouses and pens must be at least 15 feet from side and rear property lines and at least 20 feet from the nearest residence, according to the rules.

The chicken issue arose after Bofia’s neighbor, Danielle Bragg, complained to the city that the chickens are very close to her house. Bofia, a former city councilor and candidate for mayor, claims the city’s chicken rules are too restrictive.

The Planning Board on Nov. 16 voted to reduce the city’s minimum lot size required to keep chickens from 10,000 square feet to 8,000 square feet after Bofia addressed that board about the issue. Mayor-elect Jay Coelho suggested, as a compromise, reducing the required minimum lot size from 10,000 to 8,000 square feet.

Bragg had written an email to the board earlier saying she has a number of concerns about the chickens, including the potential for increased predators.

“Alongside the potential breeding ground for vermin or releasing offensive odors, would be the proximity to my home,” Bragg’s email says. “When I purchased my home in 2013, these ordinances were set in place. I knew I would not have a reasonable concern for a coop to be constructed within 10 feet of my home.”

Bragg questioned whether the city should change ordinances for one resident who did not look into the rules before buying hens.

At Tuesday’s council meeting, Councilor Mike Morris, D-Ward 1, made a motion to reduce the required lot size from 10,000 to 5,000 square feet, but his motion failed in a 3-4 vote. Councilors Flavia Oliveira, D-Ward 2, Rebecca Green, D-Ward 4, Rick Foss, R-Ward 5, and Claude Francke, D-Ward 6, voted against Morris’ motion. Council Chairman Erik Thomas, D-Ward 7, Morris and Councilor Thomas Klepach, D-Ward 3, voted in favor.

Then councilors voted 5-2, with Foss and Francke dissenting, to approve reducing the lot size from 10,000 to 8,000 square feet. The council must take a second vote to finalize the action and is scheduled to do so Dec. 15.

Bofia maintains that the city’s restrictions prohibit most people in the city from keeping chickens. He asked the council to reduce the lot requirement to 5,000 square feet. He said strict sanitation requirements for keeping chickens could be enforced by the code enforcement officer.

Klepach, however, did some quick figuring and determined that, even if the lot size were reduced to 5,000 square feet, the city’s setback requirements would prohibit anyone from keeping chickens on that sized lot.

Earlier, Klepach said he kept chickens in the past, and in the summertime, the odor from his compost bin was potent.

“It seems the regulations the city has are smart,” he said.

Bofia said it would be “pretty difficult to have a chicken coop” on his lot with the current setback requirements and asked councilors to consider decreasing the setback to the nearest residence from 20 feet to 10.

But Planning Board member Samantha Burdick said she wanted to advocate on Bragg’s behalf, as Bofia’s chicken coop is “very close to her home and very close to her property line.”

The city committee that researched chickens in 2012 and developed Waterville’s chicken rules did not do so haphazardly, Burdick said. That panel looked at issues including the humane raising of chickens, the appropriate size for chicken coops, sanitation, odor and other concerns, according to Burdick.

“Chickens defecate many, many, many times a day,” she said, adding that when chickens lay eggs, they can squawk, sending the sound farther than 20 feet.

She urged councilors to maintain the current setback requirements.

“They help to protect neighbors from the nuisance, especially if we’re lowering the lot size,” Burdick said.

She said the Planning Board had a lot of discussion about the chicken issue, heard from other residents about it and looked at other communities’ ordinances.

Posted by Phil Bofia on Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Meanwhile, Bofia, who declines to comment on the chicken issue, said in a Facebook post after the council meeting that “Tonight, like we have seen so often now in our city government. we had councilors shamefully restrict the rights of constituents to have chickens in their homes based on purely arbitrary reasons.”

“Some actually provided no reasons why they were restricting the rights of close to 800 families. That seems to be the way of some of our city leaders lately. DO NOT present any evidence to your decision and DO NOT tell the people who elected you why you are making the decisions you are making. Ironically, some of those same councilors voted to loosen restrictions for large entities during this same meeting. Once again reinforcing the divide between the working people and the elites …”

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