Crafting a chicken law that flies
For the past 18 months, Ward 3 Councilwoman Camille Vella-Wilkinson has worked on an ordinance that would allow homeowners to raise and keep hens.
She made the decision to hold it this long for a few reasons, the first being that she is looking at a fiscal note, and secondly, she didn’t want to “wing it” without contacting the Planning Department, which advised her to look at similar municipalities that permit residents to own chickens. Along with Trish Reynolds of the Planning Department, Vella-Wilkinson has done quite a bit of research on the matter.
Despite the fact that Cranston Mayor Allan Fung vetoed a chicken ordinance last month, Vella-Wilkinson said there are other municipalities that allow chickens that seem to be doing just fine.
“There haven’t been any negative incidents with Providence,” she said.
Still, she anticipates that if it’s approved – it will most likely come before the council in February – there will be questions about what will happen if residents purchase chickens, and then realize they don’t want to raise them after all.
The Warwick Animal Shelter is not equipped to deal with livestock, so she’s in the process of finding alternative locations. She’s reaching out to various farms within the state, along with an auction house that does auctions of livestock once a month.
“We are dealing with lives – they’re chicken lives, but they are lives,” Vella-Wilkinson said. “I’m not going to say, ‘Get the chickens and just bring them to Antonelli’s on the Hill.’ I want to make sure I have a safe way to deal with an event that someone gets in over their chicken head.”
If the ordinance passes, Section 300, Article 302 of the Municipal Zoning Ordinance would be amended to allow residents to own hens. Currently, the law states that fowl may be kept on residences measured at five or more acres.
An owner of a residential conforming lot would be able to own no more than six hens. The keeping of hens on non-conforming lots is not permitted under the proposed ordinance. Roosters are also not allowed. Chickens will not be allowed in multi-family complexes, including duplexes, and there shall be no outside slaughtering of chickens. The keeping of hens shall be solely for the purpose of raising hens and collecting the eggs produced. It will not allow the commercial breeding of chickens, or sale of eggs.
For the most part, Vella-Wilkinson said, hens are relatively quiet, while roosters tend to be noisy. Vella-Wilkinson is also interested in debunking several myths she said are often associated with chickens. Some of them include odor, predators, rodents, health concerns, as well as impacts on real estate value.
“When people bring up their concerns over raising chickens, to be honest a lot of it is just misconception,” she said. “One of the concerns is that if you have chickens, they are going to bring in coyotes. We have had coyotes coming in the neighborhoods, but the coyotes also go after animal feces, so people who let their pets run in their backyards and don’t clean up after them encourage coyotes to come. Sunflower seeds and other types of birdseeds attract vermin or predators because it’s a food source.”
That’s why, said Vella-Wilkinson, the legislation is very specific. It calls for chickens to be contained in secure enclosures. During daylight hours, chickens must be kept in a pen within a securely fenced backyard, as well as in a coop during non-daylight hours. They are not allowed to roam as they wish.
The ordinance also states that coops must be situated at least 10 feet from all property lines, and chickens must at all times be located in the backyard of the residence. Also, coops must always be kept in a neat and sanitary condition, and be cleaned on a regular basis to prevent offensive odors.
Further, the way people feed their chickens is important, said Vella-Wilkinson. “If you’re feeding them in a trough or a chicken feeder, you’re not going to have spillage, and you’re removing the food source for predators,” she said.
But what would she say to people who argue that the chicken itself is the food source?
“If you look at the way that many of the chicken coops are designed, you’re putting the fencing into the ground deep enough so predators can’t dig in underneath,” said Vella-Wilkinson. “Once the hens begin a laying cycle, it’s just a matter of the owner going out to check the nest to see if there are any eggs there. It’s just like any other pet that you’d clean up after. There’s a responsibility to having it.”
Vella-Wilkinson knows all about the responsibilities, as she raised chickens for a number of years. She said the amount of eggs that she was getting on a daily basis was amazing.
“Our hens were so prolific that we shared the eggs with our neighbors,” she said. “There are a lot of people that like to have fresh eggs. Having fresh eggs without the fear of hormones being injected into the chickens is going to satisfy the idea of healthy eating.”
Planning Director William DePasquale is concerned by the fiscal consequence of the ordinance. He said he needs to address how the city will enforce regulations.
“What I’m hearing in the Comprehensive Plan meetings is that we don’t have enough staff in the city to make sure that people cut their grass, or paint their house, or make sure that rental properties are kept at the minimum code requirements,” he said. “I’m wondering how we throw on additional requirements for such an ordinance. I think additional information needs to be provided to decision makers as to what cost, and whether or not the city’s resources could enforce it if it were to be considered.”
He continued, “I still have some outstanding concerns that need to be addressed before I can formalize any kind of recommendation before the Planning Board because I think there’s additional information that needs to be had. I’m resisting going forward with a positive recommendation without understanding the full cost to the city to enforce this proposal, given the limited resources we have.”