Wednesday, April 23, 2014
GARDINER — Goats and sheep won't be moving into residential neighborhoods anytime soon.
Marcina Johnston, seen last October, has been raising goats with her family in the backyard of their Gardiner home, even though it's in defiance of a city ordinance. Johnson had hoped to change the ordinance to permit small farm animals within such urban areas, but city councilors have not acted on a proposal allowing small livestock within the urban area.
Staff file photo by Andy Molloy
City councilors have decided to postpone the issue indefinitely by not voting to change the ordinance to allow small sheep and goats in residential zones.
The decision puts a temporary end to a lengthy process that began almost a year ago when a family on Plaisted Street violated a city ordinance by bringing two pygmy goats home.
City officials allowed the family to keep the goats until the council had a chance to review a zoning change.
But councilors at their Wednesday meeting called that decision a mistake that lead to making the issue unnecessarily personal.
"I think the council made a bad decision when we allowed the Johnstons to keep their (goats) before this was discussed," Councilor Robert Logan Johnston said. "It was done in the best spirit of how we can live together in a neighborly way, but it was a massive mistake."
Councilors said the issue began with requests from other residents who wanted to raise animals before Chandler and Marcina Johnston got the goats, but the animals on Plaisted Street started the ordinance review process.
Councilor Phil Hart, one of the more vocal opponents on the council to the ordinance change, said the Johnstons' experience showed that raising small livestock in residential neighborhoods doesn't work.
Throughout the process, a small group of elderly neighbors expressed their displeasure with living next to pygmy goats, complaining about the sight and smell of the animals.
"I think that's why people move into HDR (high-density residential), so they don't have to deal with these issues," Hart said.
Marcina Johnston disagrees that the experiment was a failure. She said she thinks they showed that a quarter-acre lot is large enough for raising two pygmy goats.
Marcina Johnston said that having the animals made the ordinance review process trickier, but she thinks it forced the conversation and gave momentum to the local food movement.
She said they began preparing to get rid of the goats a couple of weeks ago when they saw the discussion focusing on their individual situation, and not Gardiner as a whole.
Marcina Johnston said the process has made her more appreciative of city officials and volunteers, and it motivated her to be more active in her community.
"And I got to love a couple little cute goats for a year," she said. "That's not bad."
The original ordinance proposal drafted by the ordinance review committee last year had restrictions that could have allowed the Johnstons to keep the goats.
However, city councilors' discussions during a few meetings in March and April indicated that they probably wouldn't be passing any change that would allow anyone on such a small lot to raise livestock.
Councilors regularly called this issue a particularly divisive topic among their constituents. Much of the opposition from neighbors was about having to live next to goats and sheep in high-density residential areas.
Marcina Johnston said she wasn't expecting Mainers to see such a split between what can be done in an urban environment versus a rural one.
"This is the life we have chosen to live, and we want both," she said. "We want to have a walkable community with the neighbors, and we want to be able to grow as much of our own food as we can."
Mayor Thomas Harnett said he thinks zoning laws set up a social contract between neighbors. The expectations and rules can change, but not until they're discussed and accepted fully, he said.
The proposed restrictions included keeping the enclosed animal area 30 feet from any property line and 50 feet from any neighbors' homes, and providing at least 4,000 square feet for each animal.
It would have allowed up to two goats or sheep weighing 100 pounds or less.
"I am not comfortable with what's proposed," Harnett said. "I am not uncomfortable with continuing this discussion. I just don't know the best form to do that."
Councilor Johnston provided the most support for adopting some type of ordinance change. He said he would support looking at a change that would allow sheep and goats in lots of at least 2 or 3.5 acres.
"My vision for Gardiner is a city that allows things to happen with certain neighborly restrictions," he said.
City Manager Scott Morelli said he doesn't expect the issue to be brought up again first in council. He said it probably would arise in discussions about the comprehensive plan during the Heart & Soul project, which will wrap up this summer.
Councilor Pat Hart encouraged the council to rule on the livestock ordinance because upcoming conversations about the comprehensive plan probably will be even more difficult and emotional.
"We're either going to have to make a decision or punt on all of them," she said.
Paul Koenig — 621-5663