Town Council cites lack of space, noise and odor as concerns
By KEVIN PROFT/ecoRI News staff
NORTH PROVIDENCE, R.I. — A yearlong effort to amend an ordinance to allow backyard chicken keeping was resoundingly rejected by a vote of 5-0 at the March 3 Town Council meeting. Proponents of the idea claim home-farmed eggs are more nutritious than store-bought varieties, and that backyard chicken keeping could help make Rhode Island — a state that grows/raises less than 5 percent of the food it consumes — more food secure.
During a recent interview with ecoRI News, Town Council President Dino Autiello said chicken keeping is better suited to towns with larger lot sizes.
“North Providence is a very populated town,” he said. “Most lots are well under an acre. Many residents had concerns about the proximity of coops to people’s houses.”
Autiello also cited concerns about rodents as a reason he voted against the proposal, noting that North Providence has had problems with rats before. He said residents from afflicted neighborhoods voiced concerns that chicken keeping could revive the problem. He also noted that noise and general cleanliness were other factors he considered.
Council member Stephen Feola told ecoRI News that space and pest concerns factored into his decision to vote against the proposal. “One resident told me, ‘I did not move to North Providence to have a farm in my backyard,’” he said.
Feola also claimed chicken keeping would attract more coyotes to North Providence.
Fruit Hill resident Tim Thorp began the campaign to bring chickens to North Providence in February 2014. “I wanted to have chickens in my yard, (but) learned farm animals were banned in the town,” he said. “I thought the ordinance was antiquated and overly prohibitive and asked the town to reconsider it.”
Thorp modeled his request on Providence’s chicken-keeping ordinance that went into effect in 2010. His proposal prohibited roosters, and included setbacks from neighboring properties and measures to address concerns relating to predators, pests and odor.
Initially, the Town Council showed indifference toward the proposal, but as the year progressed, members began to express concerns, and Thorp’s idea developed a following.
Karon Hartshorn was already keeping chickens at her North Providence home, unaware of the town’s prohibition. An anonymous complaint landed a building inspector at her front door, and she was given 90 days to find a new home for her hens.
Hartshorn soon became a leading advocate for Thorp’s proposal, helping engage the public, gain endorsements, and educate council members and town officials about the issue.
Malinda Coletta joined the idea’s supporters last November. Coletta said she and her husband, a professional chef, are “passionate about food.” “We grow a lot of our own produce, preserve fruits and vegetables, and cure, smoke and dry meats,” she said. “Raising chickens for fresh eggs would be an extension of how we feed our family.”
Thorp and his supporters shepherded the proposal through a process that included multiple Town Council meetings, various committee reviews, and a meeting and workshop with the planning board.
By the time the Town Council voted in early March, advocates of backyard chicken keeping had gathered a letter of support from the Department of Environmental Management’s state veterinarian and chief of agriculture, a letter from an environmental studies professor at Brown University and a letter from the Southside Community Land Trust. They also had worked with the planning board, which, after minor alterations, wrote a letter that deemed the proposal consistent with the town’s comprehensive plan.
A petition in favor of the proposal had been signed by some 250 people, including more than 50 people from North Providence.
Informational literature, videos and websites have been provided to the Town Council by supporters, and Hartshorn invited council members and the mayor to her property to see her chicken coop — no one accepted the invitation.
About 20 supporters attended the March 3 Town Council meeting — each wearing a ribbon in support of the proposal. Three people spoke in opposition.
Thorp said he was surprised the proposal was voted down unanimously, especially considering it received a green light from the planning board. Autiello, according to reporting by The Valley Breeze, said he would base his decision off the recommendation of the planning board.
In September of last year, town planner David Westcott told The Valley Breeze that the proposal “appears to fit neatly into our zoning ordinance.” He also has said, “It makes sense to me as long as we tie it to the size of the lot.”
Coletta and Hartshorn said they were both frustrated that the council chose to favor private testimony of residents who called or e-mailed their concerns over the testimony of those who had attended the public meetings.
Council members Autiello and Feola blamed the opposition’s low turnout at the March 3 meeting on an unusual meeting time and bad weather. Both officials said the feedback they received by phone and e-mail regarding the amendment was overwhelmingly negative.
South of the border
Drake Patten owns Cluck!, an urban farm supply store on Broadway in Providence that sells chicken-keeping supplies. She currently is fostering the hens Hartshorn was required to remove from her North Providence backyard in a coop outside the store.
Patten is a supporter of backyard chicken keeping. While speaking to a crowd of about two dozen aspiring chicken keepers during a recent presentation at the Barrington Public Library, she said the benefits of chicken keeping include fresh eggs, enjoyment, food safety and food security.
“The drought in California will have an inevitable impact on New England,” she said. “We have to have control over what we eat locally.”
Patten followed Thorp’s attempt to legalize chicken keeping in North Providence. In addition to being a personal supporter, her business also stood to gain customers if the ordinance had been amended. She said she noticed an uptick in business after Barrington passed its chicken-keeping ordinance.
“I believe it was handled poorly by the North Providence Town Council,” Patten said in a recent interview with ecoRI News. She said the advocates did everything by the book, but the amendment was still rejected.
She said the council dismissed the researched testimony of the proposal’s proponents, ignored the planning board’s approval and members did little to inform themselves about the issue. In her opinion, the council voted the proposal down because it was foreign to the town’s sensibilities.
“This is about feeding ourselves,” Patten said. “When will we get to the point where the right to raise food is a basic right?”
Leo and Nicole Pollock, Providence residents and owners of four hens, were two of the advocates responsible for convincing the City Council, in 2010, to allow backyard chicken keeping. Their campaign was similar to North Providence’s, except with a different outcome.
The Pollocks, along with other chicken advocates, rallied the community, attended City Council meetings, distributed educational materials, gathered letters of support, and worked with city officials and animal control to ensure the proposal would be appropriate and enforceable.
Providence’s chicken-keeping proposal passed with only one dissenting vote.
“Chickens are farm animals that are totally appropriate for an urban environment,” Leo Pollock said during a recent interview with ecoRI News.
The Pollocks said concerns about chicken keeping are valid, which is why cities and towns need to have clear and enforceable ordinances to prevent behaviors that could negatively impact neighbors or the flocks themselves. Ordinances that include setbacks from neighboring properties, prohibit roosters, limit flock size, ensure humane space allotments, and require coops to be kept clean to limit odor, food to be covered to deter pests and coops to be secure to deter predators, minimize the negative impacts associated with chicken keeping, according to the Pollocks.
In municipalities without chicken-keeping ordinances, the Pollocks said many residents simply keep chickens illegally. They said having an ordinance allows law-abiding residents to keep chickens responsibly, while respecting their neighbors.
The Pollocks said many of the complaints leveled against chickens are actually complaints against chicken owners. “People can raise any animal irresponsibly,” Leo said.
As Patten said during her recent Barrington presentation, if you leave dog food out on your back porch or your trash can outside without a lid, pests are going to be a problem.
“We tolerate the neighbors with barking dogs,” Nicole Pollock said. Chickens are no more problematic than many commonly accepted pets, she said, but many people perceive chicken keeping to be a rural activity that doesn’t belong in an urban or suburban environment.
Nicole said the North Providence Town Council should have consulted with providence animal control to learn whether chickens had created an enforcement headache, instead of making assumptions and listening to hearsay. Doing so, she said, would have taken the politics out of the issue.
Neither of the North Providence Town Council members interviewed for this story contacted a Providence official for information regarding the city’s experience with chicken keeping. Feola said he talked to a resident of North Providence who knew someone in Providence’s political sphere who said the chicken-keeping ordinance was a “disaster.” Autiello said he spoke with residents of Providence who regretted that the city passed the ordinance and heard of one instance where a chicken was loose on a main road.
Arthur Smith, Providence’s animal control director, said his division responded to more than 3,000 animal-related incidents in 2014. Those incidents resulted in the impoundment of 1,047 animals. Of those impoundments, about five were chickens — less than two-tenths of a percent. Complaints relating to dogs make up “well over 90 percent of the calls,” Smith said.
“Have we had neighbors complain? Yes, we have,” he said. “But if we handle a dozen complaints in a year that’s on the high side. Chickens have really not been problematic.”
While Smith wasn’t working for Providence Animal Control when the chicken-keeping ordinance went into effect five years ago, colleagues were. “There was skepticism,” he said, “but (my colleagues) said complaints actually seemed to decrease after the ordinance went into effect.”
Smith said the Providence ordinance is well defined and easy to understand. Residents have guidelines they are expected to follow, and when they are out of compliance, animal control can clearly explain the infraction.
“Residents that have had complaints against them have been very cooperative,” Smith said. “You have to be responsible just as you would with a dog or cat. There is some effort involved in making sure the area is clean and food is stored properly. But, the city is culturally diverse. Certain cultures keep chickens and hens because it is very much part of their culture and family.”
He said animal control has responded to the “occasional” loose hen. “We bring them in, and if they don't get claimed, we have a network of people who are usually able to adopt them,” Smith said.
Registration of chickens isn’t required, but Smith estimated that about 100 Providence households keep chickens.
Concerning other communities, Smith said he doesn’t offer an opinion about whether they should allow backyard chickens. “The decision is up to each individual municipality,” he said.
He does, however, tell those who inquire about his experience in Providence. “I tell them the experience with the city of Providence is that we really haven't had problems or (a high volume) of complaints,” Smith said.
“We are not done,” Hartshorn said. Since the North Providence Town Council rejected the chicken-keeping proposal, supporters have held multiple meetings. Neither Hartshorn nor Coletta would disclose future plans, but they both said they are “working on other ways of getting it in front of the town and the public.”
As for Thorp, he said he is still an advocate for local food, but he doesn't see a way forward with regard to chicken keeping in his town. He is no longer involved with the effort.
Council member Feola said he is a “strong supporter for sustainable living,” but that he stands by his vote to reject chicken keeping.
“I believe (the advocates in favor of the proposal) would have done a good job keeping the yard clean and building a good coop, but we don't have the money for enforcement when other people don’t follow the rules,” Feola said.
He acknowledged that the proposal could be resubmitted for consideration. “It’s there right, they can retry. They may just come up against a wall again. At this point in time I just can’t see it passing,” he said.
Council President Autiello said he thinks he was “fair through the whole process.” He said he was open to a hearing on the proposal, and had the town cover the $1,200 cost of advertising the hearings. He said he was candid with Thorp from the start when he told him he didn’t expect the ordinance would be changed, and again three month prior to the final vote when he informed Thorp that he was receiving more negative feedback than positive toward the idea.
“I struggled with this decision,” he said. “The way I looked at it was that the people who showed up for the meetings would do a great job of keeping coops clean. It’s the people that would just buy chickens and have them running around the backyard, not adhering to the rules, that would be the problem.”
Autiello also maintained that North Providence doesn’t have the space for keeping chickens.
Newport (3,215 people per square mile), Woonsocket (5,321), Providence (9,676) and New York City (27,000) all allow chicken keeping. North Providence has a population density of 5,500 people per square mile.