Pensions packed the East auditorium for Monday’s Cranston City Council meeting, but chickens dominated the conversation. The council heard testimony on both sides of the issue, but ultimately voted 5-4 to pass an ordinance providing guidelines for residents raising chickens.
“I feel like this ordinance is written in a way that requires people to put a lot of effort into building a proper coop. It is clear that this is not something to be taken up impulsively,” said Councilwoman-elect Sarah Kales Lee.
Lee was joined in her opinion by council members Steve Stycos, Jim Donahue, Tony Lupino, Maria Bucci and Emilio Navarro. The dissenting votes came from Leslie Ann Luciano, Paul Archetto, Richard Santamaria and Michael Favicchio. Favicchio said he is sympathetic to chicken owners but believes the policy puts undue strain on an already burdened city inspector who would be responsible for ensuring that chicken coops were constructed in compliance with the ordinance.
“My big concern is people who do not do it properly or the proliferation of chicken coops. To add another burden to Mr. [Stan] Pikul’s day is going to be very difficult,” he said.
Favicchio also said that every phone call and e-mail he received on the subject was against the ordinance.
“I’ve had quite a few phone calls about this issue, which I was somewhat surprised at,” he said.
Also against the ordinance was Aram Garabedian, who said he spent 10 days researching the subject and believes the policy is a threat to public health and safety, particularly when it comes to providing an additional food source to the city’s growing rodent population.
“If you want to impact Cranston with more rats, you are opening up the door. It’s far more dangerous than you believe it is,” he said.
Dennis Tabella, director of the animal advocacy group Defenders of Animals, said he has seen families take in animals like chickens and discover quickly that they are not as easy to take care of as they had assumed. In the long run, he fears it could lead to an influx of chickens in Rhode Island shelters and abandoned in the outdoors.
“Normally, I would encourage people to adopt animals of any kind, but not tonight,” he said. “I believe the smaller the victim, the bigger the crime. A lot of these chickens are going to end up in the woods, dumped, because people don’t have the same values about chickens.”
Tabella touched upon the diseases carried by chickens, including salmonella, which is particularly harmful to young children, diabetes sufferers and people with weak immune systems. He added that chickens could attract both rats and coyotes.
Councilman-elect John Lanni said that given the city’s recent problems with rodents, he finds the ordinance to be counterintuitive. He noted that the council recently passed an ordinance that limits households to having one bird feeder as a means of minimizing food sources for rodents.
“Now you’re allowing 10 chickens per household? I don’t know what came first, the chicken or the egg, but this is contradictory,” he said.
The majority of speakers, however, said that the benefits of keeping chickens far outweigh the supposed risks. Wendy Reynoso of Shaw Avenue has been keeping chickens in a backyard coop for three years and said it has been a joy.
“We have not had any problems. Our neighbors have had no problems with them,” she said. “We’ve not had pests. We’re very responsible. We keep our food properly put away, and it’s been a very positive experience for our families.”
Her neighbor, Dana Tatlock, with whom she shares a coop, agreed and said that if anything, her family is healthier for the experience.
“Both for health, welfare, safety, as well as the greater environmental good, we’re very much in support of the chicken ordinance,” she said. “This ordinance is such a benefit because it is laying out standards by which people who want to do this will do it in a responsible way, which we have done.”
Resident Drake Patten, who currently has a backyard coop, said the disease argument against keeping chickens doesn’t hold up. She said flocks this small – 10 chickens or less – can be cared for effectively by a family and even if disease were to strike, it would not spread to other chickens or families.
“Micro flocks are considered the way to keep chickens safe and healthy. Micro flocks aren’t connected to other chickens. If there’s an outbreak of any kind in a micro-flock, it’s containable,” she said.
Under the ordinance, residents are permitted to keep one hen per 800 square feet, with a maximum of 10 hens on any lot. Residents are prohibited from keeping roosters or keeping their chickens inside and must build coops in side or back yards. The ordinance also lays out construction requirements for coops, calling for covered and well-ventilated hen houses as well as strong construction materials. Hardware cloth must be buried at least one foot into the ground, preventing chickens from digging their way out or predators from digging their way into coops.
“I think it was a well-crafted ordinance; we added some teeth to the provisions about the construction of the coops,” Lupino said.
Considering construction costs, as well as the $25 inspection fee, supporters estimated start-up costs around $200. They said that should be enough to deter anyone who isn’t serious about keeping chickens from building a coop.
“The goal of this ordinance is to set some guidelines for responsible chicken keeping,” said resident Kim Morin.
The council passed the ordinance as proposed, but there will likely be tweaks in the future, as Councilman Stycos would like to propose small changes. Namely, he would like to see the limit of one chicken per 800 feet changed to one per 1,000 feet, and the description of “open lot area” changed to at least 30 percent of open land.
Regardless, Councilman Donahue said the ordinance helps the city keep with the times, as backyard farming and self-sustaining households are a growing trend.
“This is a movement that’s happening. I think we probably do need to codify in some way how we expect people to care for [chickens] and raise them,” he said.