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Two beloved hens get eviction notices from New London

I'm sorry that it was a zoning dispute, over chickens no less, that led to my introduction to Jane Barton, a distinguished new resident of New London who happens to live in one of my favorite houses in the city.

I say new resident, even though Barton bought the magnificent yellow-clapboard Greek Revival house at Granite and Hempstead streets some two years ago. After all, this is New England, and it takes more than a few years to shake the term newcomer.

Barton, whose intriguing biography includes work as an author and as a director of historic restorations with the U.S. government, consulting with presidents, found her way to New London through her brother, a retired professor who taught most recently at Connecticut College.

She fell in love with the house on Granite, and I'd like to think she was maybe a little inspired by the spirit of a former owner responsible for its principal restoration, the late Dr. Dorothy Leib.

Leib was a legend in New London for her deep involvement in civic affairs and politics, from getting her hands dirty on garden beautification committees to terms on the City Council, city school board and state Board of Education.

I suspect Leib would be very curious about the zoning battle brewing over Barton's two hens, Cloud and Wilhelmina, of a Welsummer breed from a village in the Netherlands named for the Queen of the Netherlands, where Barton's grandmother was born.

Cloud and Wilhelmina have been with Barton on Granite since she first moved in. She takes them with her for summer sojourns on an island in Maine.

In addition to the nutritious organic eggs they produce — she is the author of two cookbooks, "Knead It" and "The Berkshires Cookbook" — she says she treasures the chickens for the companionship they provide.

However, Barton's chickens have run afoul (sorry, I couldn't help myself) of city zoning regulations, following a complaint from a neighbor who captured a picture of them in his yard.

Barton says she was surprised by the picture and didn't think they'd ever left her property, though she admits they have been free in her garden at times. In any case, she has them well cooped in now in a reinforced enclosure, where she says they will remain.

Still, the neighbor's complaint has triggered a full-blown enforcement by the zoning officer, and the hens' predicament has risen to the attention of Mayor Michael Passero, City Councilor Curtis Goodwin and Law Director Jeffrey Londregan.

Both Passero and Goodwin have expressed sympathy for Barton's predicament but haven't stopped the vice of zoning enforcement from closing in.

Goodwin says Barton has his "continued support" while he and the Passero administration try to find a "suitable solution."

Passero says neither the mayor nor the City Council has any authority, since it is the responsibility of the Planning & Zoning Commission. He suggested she might ask the commission to extend existing city regulations governing chickens to the R4 zone where she lives.

At Passero's urging, Londregan offered an opinion in which he dismissed Barton's claim that the chickens are emotional support animals and therefore protected by fair housing laws. He says they are not service animals as defined by disabilities laws.

Barton, however, says she has an appropriate letter from a licensed professional who has assessed her health needs and declared the hens emotional support animals. That designation would protect them under federal housing laws and it would be interesting to see what a judge might say about the city evicting them with zoning laws when a landlord couldn't legally force a tenant to get rid of them.

In any case, Barton, Cloud and Wilhelmina are heading off soon for a summer in Maine.

I'm hoping for some civic-minded fairness in the spirit of Dr. Leib to produce some kind of solution in that time.

There are more menacing domestic animals and pressing zoning problems out there for the city to focus on, instead of evicting two quiet docile hens who aren't hurting anyone and do seem important to their owner.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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