By Ann Kiessling, Ph.D.
Editor’s Note: Kiessling often covers the Board of Health for The Bedford Citizen and, in full disclosure, is an owner of the Bedford Blueberry Goat Farm
At the May meeting of the Bedford Board of Health, Director Heidi Porter circulated suggested revisions to Bedford’s Keeping of Animals Regulations. They will be discussed again at the June 20, 7 pm meeting of the Board of Health in Town Center.
According to Tom Kinzer, co-chair, “[Bedford’s] regulations (https://www.bedfordma.gov/sites/bedfordma/files/file/file/keeping_of_animals_-_current_regulation_5-3-10.pdf) have historically seemed designed to discourage the keeping of backyard farm animals in Bedford.”
Whether or not Boards of Health should regulate “Keeping of Animals” has been a topic of debate for many years throughout the Commonwealth. Although not responsible for animal health, some Massachusetts’ towns, but not all, have put in place Keeping of Animals Regulations under their authority for over all “public nuisance” control. Animal health issues per se come under the purview of other agencies.
According to Bedford’s Board of Health, Bedford’s regulations are not intended to apply to “Farms” because commercial farming operations fall under the oversight of state agencies, even though the Bedford Health Agent conducts annual barn inspections for the state.
But the definition of a “Farm” is somewhat obscure. Massachusetts defines “Farm” as “a body of land devoted to agriculture” (Mass General Laws Section 128 7A) and defines “Farming” and “Agriculture” in very broad terms (MGL Chapter 128 1A) without specific land size, income specifications, or tax status.
The proposed Bedford Board of Health definition of “Farm” was based on tax status, which requires 5 acres in agricultural use and is not applied for by all commercial farming operations. Moreover, a Massachusetts zoning amendment approved a few years ago denies zoning restrictions by communities against agricultural activities of as few as 2 acres if $1,000 per acre in gross revenues is generated annually. According to the Department of Agriculture legal counsel, there is currently a bill before the Mass legislature that would extend farming tax status to such 2 acre operations, instead of requiring 5 acres.
Brad Mitchell, Chairman of the Board of Health in Littleton and a member of the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation, suggests there may be no need for townships to have “Keeping of Animals Regulations,” because Boards of Health already have broad powers to oversee and mitigate public nuisances, including those that could be caused by backyard farm animals, or dangerous wild animals, such as chimpanzees and alligators.
Bedford’s current Keeping of Animals Regulations requires annual inspection and the payment of a fee based on numbers of farm animals being kept. But not all Massachusetts townships have such a fee-based system, and the revised guidelines do not necessarily need to contain the same provision.
The Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation has been working with the Massachusetts Association of Health Boards to develop guidelines (Model Regulations for Boards of Health) for those communities who deem it necessary to put in place “Keeping of Animals Regulations.”
Like all Bedford Board of Health meetings, the meeting on June 20 is open to the public, and the public is invited to attend. Brad Mitchell of Littleton will be on hand to help answer questions.
The Board of Health discussed posting the revised regulations on its website prior to voting, but if not, the current version of the proposed revisions, including edits by Bedford Town Counsel, can be obtained by calling the Board of Health office, 781-275-6507.