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HAVERHILL

Board faces balancing act on pig farms

Proposal to create ban inspires intense debate

A heated conflict between neighbors over eight swine has spiraled into a debate being closely watched by farmers across the state as the Haverhill Board of Health contemplates banishing piggeries from the city.

The Haverhill controversy pits farmers who view the proposed ban as a threat to their agrarian lifestyle against homeowners who are convinced that piggeries undermine their property values and endanger the environment. The Board of Health is expected to take action on the proposal during its meeting Tuesday night.

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“Here we are growing food for the local community, at a time when the buy-local movement is rising in popularity, and because of one neighbor who caused a mass hysteria, our way of life is being threatened,’’ said Marlene Stasinos, who with her husband, Chris, stands at the center of the dispute. “We lost a lot of customers at our farm stand last summer because of the misconception out there that we were doing something illegal, when all we were trying to do was ensure our winter income.’’

The intense debate began to swirl in May, after a neighbor of the Stasinoses learned the couple had started keeping pigs on their 9-acre Boxford Road property, and complained to city officials.

For the last 40-plus years, Haverhill has required anyone who wishes to raise pigs and certain other “domestic animals, poultry or fowl’’ to obtain a license from the Health Board. However, the complaint against the third-generation farming family appears to be the first filed since the licensing regulation was adopted in 1968, according to City Solicitor William D. Cox Jr. At least eight farms in Haverhill raise pigs, Cox said, and not one of them is licensed.

“After the complaint was filed, the Board of Health and conservation officials came out,’’ Marlene Stasinos said. “They had no problem with our operation. The smells that neighbors were complaining about, they didn’t emanate from our farm.’’

The couple’s lawyer, Francis A. DiLuna, who has devoted a significant portion of his practice to representing the agricultural community, said their pigs are fed vegetables and hay, not garbage, which produces the stench often associated with pig farms.

Still, the dust-up created by the complaint against Chris Stasinos, and his subsequent request for the required licenses to keep pigs on his property and the nearby 132-acre Silsby Farm, prompted the Health Board to consider banning anyone in the city from keeping a piggery, defined in a draft proposal as “four or more pigs at any one time.’’

Hearings on Stasinos’s request and the proposed ban drew dozens of people on both sides of the debate, including farm families with youngsters wearing “I love pigs’’ stickers, distressed homeowners, and a well-known cattle veterinarian in his 90s.

Supporters said Stasinos is a responsible farmer who runs a clean operation and takes good care of his animals. William Silsby, whose family ran Silsby Farm for decades, said if pigs and other livestock are properly cared for, there is little or no odor.

The nonprofit Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation said the proposed ban on piggeries flies in the face of the buy-local movement, while local farmers urged the Board of Health to be mindful that farmers need to make a profit to stay in business. They noted that diversifying the goods they offer is one way to keep farms going.

“There’s enough obstacles, with the weather and the finances, without the city giving us a hard time too,’’ said Walter Lesiczka, who runs Wally’s Vegetables on Amesbury Road, noting that the city’s farms offer a healthy alternative to meat processed in a factory. “We never have to worry about a recall or health scare. Our freezers are always full from our farm.’’

Neighbors who opposed the piggeries said the swine could pose a threat to the city’s air quality and the public health. They raised questions about the provisions Stasinos had made for the disposal of the animals’ waste, noting that the farmer’s Boxford Road site is near the Wheeler Woods Conservation Area and Chadwick Pond. Opponents also voiced concern that the pigs would produce odors that would cause their property values to plummet and hurt their quality of life.

“Many people are just not willing to buy a house that’s located next to a piggery,’’ said James F. Waldron, who represents the developers of Hale’s Landing, a residential community near Silsby Farm. He noted that his clients have invested $2.3 million in the subdivision, and said the potential for a nearby piggery has already turned off prospective buyers.

After listening to both sides, the Board of Health in October denied Stasinos’ request for a license and a “site assignment’’ - required of operations that may pose a public health threat - for piggeries on his land and at Silsby Farm. Then, in November, the board postponed voting on the piggeries ban and asked citizens to submit alternate proposals, which may be considered during its 7 p.m. meeting Tuesday in City Hall.

City Councilor Sven A. Amirian, who in September suggested the city outlaw piggeries or at least regulate them closely, said he is hopeful that the Health Board’s three members - Carl F. Rosenbloom, Victor L. LaBranche, and Peter Carbone - “will be able to draft regulations that are fair for Haverhill’s residents and its farmers.’’ Mayor James J. Fiorentini said he, too, supports the board’s decision to develop rules governing pig farm operations.

“I think we should have enough information to make something work,’’ Carbone said during a telephone interview last week. “I think it’s pretty evident after listening to everyone talk that no one on the board really wants to ban people from having pigs.

“I think people want to put a limit on it, so there aren’t hundreds of pigs at one location. What the limit will be, whether it’s one, five, or 25, that’s what we need to decide,’’ he said.

According to Cox, the city attorney, there is ample case law that authorizes a community’s Board of Health to prohibit piggeries. A 1964 decision by the state Supreme Judicial Court upholding North Andover’s ban on pigs is considered the precedent-setting ruling.

For the Stasinos family, the Health Board’s review of city regulations comes too late. Chris Stasinos was forced to remove his pigs after the board denied his applications.

“We are out of the pig business,’’ said Marlene Stasinos, who got a part-time job to help make ends meet. She said she and her husband plan to start a Community Supported Agriculture program this spring to boost the farm’s earnings. Through such initiatives, people buy shares in a farm’s harvest before the growing season, and then receive a portion of each crop as it is cultivated.

A farm stand started by Chris Stasinos in 1970 offers a wide variety of vegetables and is particularly known for its award-winning sweet corn, tomatoes, and pumpkins.

Chris Stasinos appealed the Health Board’s decisions to Essex Superior Court and the state Department of Environmental Protection. Citing a lack of jurisdiction, the agency’s commissioner, Kenneth L. Kimmell, on Dec. 28 dismissed his request, leaving the Superior Court as his remaining venue.

“It could take a year or two to make its way through the court,’’ said DiLuna. “The wheels of justice move slowly.’’

Brenda J. Buote may be reached at brenda.buote@gmail.com.
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