Protests greet Westport animal rules

Some say proposed registry punishes farmers for others’ crimes

By Bruce Burdett
Posted 9/19/19

WESTPORT — When he read the Board of Health’s (BOH) proposed Keeping of Animals regulation, poultry farmer William Long said his first thought was, “Why am I being punished for (what happened …

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Protests greet Westport animal rules

Some say proposed registry punishes farmers for others’ crimes

Posted

WESTPORT — When he read the Board of Health’s (BOH) proposed Keeping of Animals regulation, poultry farmer William Long said his first thought was, “Why am I being punished for (what happened at the Medeiros tenant farm off Route) 177?

“People who raise animals on their own land want their animals to be healthy and prosperous. I took this (draft) as an insult to me because you are telling me ‘I don’t know how to raise animals.’”

Most in the crowd of perhaps 200 greeted his remarks, and those of many others to speak against the regulations for two hours Tuesday, with applause.

The board took no action but Chairman Philip Weinberg said they will take all that they heard under consideration as the process continues.

The BOH, which had already written a set of rules governing tenant farms, drafted a Keeping of Animals regulation as a way, it said, to keep track of animals that it believes are not not checked or accounted for by the existing state Barn Book inspections and local pig and horse regulations.

The proposal is aimed at property owners — especially backyard and hobby farmers — who keep chickens, cattle, goats, sheep, llamas and other animals (not house pets or companion animals).

The purpose, says the BOH, is “the protection of public health and safety and emergency planning, and that said animals are kept in a manner and under conditions that will not cause harm or the threat of harm to the public health and safety, the environment, and the health and safety of the animals.”

Such farmers would be required to register annually the type and number of animals they keep, provide contact information, and be subject to inspection with or without notice. No fee is set but the possibility of a future fee is left open.

Mr. Weinberg said the BOH has been working in public sessions since April on the ordinance, hand in hand with the town Agriculture Committee, a process encouraged by the Board of Selectmen.

Donna Parillo, a former member of the animal action committee, said there is a clear need for an Animal Registry because, with the exception of pigs and horses which have their own set of rules, “Town officials in Westport do not know where the animals are … Even with the Barn Book inspection process, the Medeiros farm incident happened in 2010 and 2016.

“We have 120 properties that receive Barn Book inspection,” Ms. Parillo said. “The Agricultural Commission chairperson once stated that there could be 200 to 400 properties” in town where animals are kept.

Police need to know where animals are kept for safety reasons, such as when animals get loose, and inspectors need to know what properties to check. But, “If our animal inspector were to decide to leave, the knowledge (of where animals are) goes with that person because (Barn Book information) cannot be shared with the town.”

First to take aim at the draft was Agricultural Commission Chairman Ray Raposa who said, “I’m embarrassed to say that I helped with this draft.” Some of it is good, “some I don’t agree with.”

The AgCom had agreed with the tenant farm rules, he said, but did not support the Animal Registry.

He said he had been put in a “compromised position” through the process and said the BOH needs “to come up with something better for the farmers and back yard people.”

Constance Gee, who was also involved in the process, disputed Mr. Raposa’s account.

At the August meeting, “we were heartened to hear Ray say … and I quote, ‘I don’t have any objections as long as we continue to work together.’ You can find that at 1 hour and 29 minutes of the August meeting. So I must admit to being taken aback by the outrage I have read on social media opposing its adoption. This effort has been in the works for seven months now and, at every turn, input from the farming community has been solicited.”

A speaker who said he is a public health director, said the board is attempting to do the right thing but parts go “over and above our rights as citizens. It is also extremely redundant — (there is) not a single tool being given to the board that it does not already possess” — and it is too long.

He said he is bothered most by inspectors being able to get on people’s property without notice — he pointed to the 4th Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.”

Karen Gonsalves, who has “had animals off and on my whole life — cows, horses, chickens …”, said she wondered about the meaning of the town’s “Right to Farm Community” sign so Googled it. Part of what she found states that the designation defends farmers rights without outside interference.

“This (draft) kind of runs contrary to everything the Right to Farm Community stands for,” she said.

One man rose to say he believes the registry as written runs counter to both Right To Farm and the 4th Amendment. “We’re not tenant farmers, we weren’t on Channel 12 news, we don’t go home and treat our animals bad.”

I don’t think this regulation is necessary, said Katie Nemeth. As someone whose farm already gets Barn Book inspections, this latest proposal “duplicates something that is already working. … “We love our animals and we love this town.”

“The people sitting in this room are the people you need to listen to, not the people that moved into town …” said Philip Plant.

“What happened at Route 177 is a tragedy. I don’t want to see that happen.” But, “this draft is making this town go far away from what it was 100 years ago.”

Route 177 put a black mark on all of us, Ray Elias said, but “I stand in opposition to this.” The BOH and town already have all the authority they need to act without this regulation. He added that it is the right of anyone in town to make a complaint about any farm.”If you’re going to have a backyard farm or hide your animals and not take care of them, what’s this going to do?” asked Kyle Desrosiers. “Nothing.”

Sherilyn Mahoney said Westport farmers are the “true animal advocates.”

“I’m not quite clear about how animal abuse on a tenant farm became about regulating Westport farmers but somehow it did. Somehow Westport farmers have become a scapegoat.”

Westport native and third generation farmer Steve Medeiros said he remembered a time when there were 54 dairy farms in Westport — his father often said the town had more cows then people.

He asked, “How many people in this room made a living milking cows,” at any time? Please stand. A fair number got to their feet.

“How many dairy farmers are left in this room? Silence.

Farming is disappearing, in part because of over-regulation, he said. “I don’t want to have to bring my grandson to Buttonwood Park to see cows.”

Facing the head table, Carla Samson said, “I feel that this is the Board of Health’s attempt to save face for what happened on 177. That’s all this is about.”

Asking people who treat animals badly to register makes as much sense as asking a criminal to register his gun, she added.

A woman who said she grew up on a farm in Little Compton and now farms in Westport suggested “that all of the rules that are in place be enforced rather than enacting new ones. They are an insult.”

Amy Lawton said she objects to the regulations on three counts:

• More overregulation of the sort that has put so many farmers out of business;

• The costs — fees to farmers and higher taxes to pay the inspectors;

• And, “Do you think that the people who are going to neglect their animals are going to register their animals?”

Tom Vieira wanted to know, “Who is going to inspect our farms?” Will it be someone who knows about farming? He also said some things are vague — like “what is a ‘nuisance.’”

“I have no problem with you coming on my property (but) call me first, give me 24 hours notice.”

When all had spoken, Mr. Weinberg agreed that it is very unlikely that we would be here if not for 177. Among other things that that episode revealed, he said, was that while there are rules and inspections for pigs and horses, “there are a lot of animals that the Board of Health does not regulate … People are raising animals who don’t get Barn Book inspected.”

He said the Board of Health has a responsibility to the town to make sure that animals are being taken care of — “and I’m not saying that anyone isn’t taking care of them.” Asked to cite a single instance of animal abuse or neglect since the 177 case, he pointed to several, among them problems at a local pig farm.

He said the ordinance could be more clear in places and added that the proposed regulation does not include fees, a comment that drew audience shouts.

Me. Weinberg acknowledged that fees, though not specifically set, are mentioned as a future possibility, which he called “dumb.”

Discussions of the draft will continue, the audience was told.

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