On Monday, Nov. 26, municipal pensions took a backseat to chickens at a meeting of the Cranston City Council. But just over one week later, Mayor Allan Fung had the final say when he vetoed an ordinance providing guidelines for backyard chicken keeping in Cranston.
The council voted 5-4 for passage, meaning the mayor’s decision is likely set in stone, unless a member changes his or her mind. The City Council must have a super majority – six of the nine votes – to override the mayor’s veto.
Fung says the city’s rodent problem was his “primary consideration” when voting down the ordinance.
“We do have a very serious rat problem in various neighborhoods in the city, particularly in the more urban type areas, and my issue is we already have situations with just generally pet owners who are not responsible, who leave food out and don’t pick up after animals’ waste. I don’t want to compound the problem by adding to this serious situation,” he said.
After the initial meeting, some residents questioned how the council could approve chicken keeping when just weeks before they passed an ordinance limiting the number of bird feeders allowed per household – citing bird seed as a source of food for rodents.
Kim Morin does not keep chickens but helped put the ordinance together. She sympathizes with residents dealing with rats, but hopes that the ordinance could be reintroduced once the city has tackled the rodent problem.
“I don’t blame these people who have the rat issue for being worried about it. I respect that,” she said. “We were disappointed and we hope that we’ll be able to bring it up again when the time is right. We’re not going to give up.”
Advocates like Morin argue that the wording of the resolution weeds out residents who are not serious about chicken keeping. The ordinance allowed residents to keep one hen per 800 square feet, with a maximum of 10 hens on any lot. Construction guidelines for coops sought to keep predators out and keep chickens, food and waste in.
“Our goal was responsible chicken keeping precisely because it’s a growing thing that’s happening,” said resident Drake Patten.
She says that misinformation colored many of the arguments against chicken keeping, and she was disappointed that the mayor didn’t give more credence to the well-researched argument of proponents.
“I was surprised and also really disappointed in the process. We felt that the administration had been very involved, and they were obviously present at the last meeting. Typically, if a mayor is considering a veto, there tends to be something said at the meeting. I think that came as a real shock to us,” Patten said. “I feel strongly that if the mayor were considering a veto, it would have been appropriate to reach out to the people who worked so hard and sit down with them.”
What this means for residents currently keeping chickens is unclear. Fung said Planning Director Peter Lapolla must now sit down with the city solicitor and minimum housing director to determine a course of action on enforcement. There is no way of knowing how many homeowners currently have coops, though at least five residents who spoke at the November meeting admitted to keeping chickens.
Should the city decide to eliminate existing backyard coops, the mayor believes that task would be far less daunting than enforcing regulations on chicken keepers – another factor he considered in his veto.
“We’re very down throughout the city, particularly in the departments where they would have to enforce this and I don’t want to continue to compound the problem,” he said. “It’s difficult enough of a challenge maintaining what we have.”
For Patten, she says the veto changes nothing. While the regulatory ordinance did not pass, there is nothing on the books prohibiting chicken keeping either.
“There’s nothing illegal about having chickens in Cranston. We have our chickens and our neighbors are fine with us having our chickens,” she said.
Fung’s final concern, though admittedly speculative, is that proliferation of chicken coops could negatively impact property values.
“If I were buying a home and I see that someone has chickens next door, it would cause me serious pause whether I want to buy that home. I’m not alone in that type of sentiment,” he said.
Moreover, the mayor said the response has been “overwhelmingly” positive. He said he has received several emails from residents asking that he reconsider but has spoken with many more people who are pleased with his decision.
Fung was unsure how the veto might affect area animal shelters. The Cranston Animal Shelter does accept chickens, but Christy Burdick of the shelter says they see only one or two chickens each year. She is not concerned about an influx, or at least not an influx that the shelter could not handle.
“We have a woman who runs a rabbit rescue out in Foster and she takes most any of our farm animals that we get in,” she said.