Ridgefield selectmen seek public input on Henny Penny Farm lease extension

The Board of Selectmen voted unanimously Wednesday to hold a public hearing and town meeting with regards to extending Whitney Freeman's lease to operate Henny Penny Farm on Ridgebury Road.

The Board of Selectmen voted unanimously Wednesday to hold a public hearing and town meeting with regards to extending Whitney Freeman’s lease to operate Henny Penny Farm on Ridgebury Road.

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RIDGEFIELD — The Board of Selectmen voted unanimously this week to hold a public hearing and town meeting with regards to extending Whitney Freeman’s lease to operate Henny Penny Farm on Ridgebury Road.

The public hearing is slated for Sept. 1 and the town meeting will follow on Sept. 22. Both events will be held in person at Town Hall starting at 7:30 p.m., but could move to a virtual format should local COVID rates increase.

The 16-acre farm lies about a half-mile north of the former McKeon property, which is designated as conservation land and owned by the town. There, Freeman grazes a herd of roughly 70 sheep that aid in soil regeneration.

Years of uniformed grazing practices have damaged the soil’s viability, she explained, but more progressive practices — like the ones she employs — could result in improvements.

Freeman’s sheep graze on a small portion of land that is then left untouched for a month or more. This controlled “stress” on the land augments water percolation and infiltration, spreads manure more evenly — even reducing odors — and improves the carbon-holding capacity of the soil.

While the board lauded Freeman’s environmental stewardship, they could not ignore complaints from neighbors about the seemingly commercial nature of the farm. The original five-year lease only approved 30 sheep - the new one allows up to 85.

Some also feel that increased activity on the farm, such as the noise of lawnmowers and tractors, causes disturbances to nearby wildlife. Conservation Commission Chairman James Coyle said, however, that the new lease includes a clause to protect bird species on the farm.

Henny Penny neighbor David Whitehouse expressed his concerns during public comment.

“It looks like a commercial operation, not a protected conservation space,” he said. “I believe the count of sheep should be lower ... ‘cause when the count jumped from 48 to 71 we noticed (an) increase of activity on the property as well as the odor of the sheep.”

He added, “The (Conservation) Commission should not have the authority to grant exceptions to a material term in the lease such as flock count without the written consent of the selectmen. … We as neighbors need someone to advocate on our behalf.”

Selectwoman Barbara Manners said Whitehouse’s concerns - as well as those of other neighbors - warrant public input on the fate of the lease extension.

“I am troubled by the fact that Mr. Whtehouse says that the board has shown no deference or concern about the opinions of the neighbors,” she said. “The people who have concerns should have the opportunity to come before the Board of Selectmen ... and be heard.”

Jarret Liotta contributed to this story.

alyssa.seidman@hearstmediact.com