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Chicken fervor spreads in northern Rhode Island

February 14, 2013

WOONSOCKET — New laws that would permit property owners to keep chickens in residential areas for the first time have been proposed in both Woonsocket and North Smithfield.
If all plays out according to script, the City Council in Woonsocket and the Town Council in North Smithfield are on track to vote on the measures the same night, March 4.
Woonsocket City Councilman Marc Dubois said a proposal to amend the zoning ordinance will actually be introduced during a meeting Monday, but it must be tabled for a public hearing and preliminary vote as a matter of procedure. Theoretically, fellow councilors could kill the measure on arrival, but Dubois says he hopes that doesn’t happen.
“Even if they’re against it, let’s at least have a public hearing and see what people have to say,” said Dubois.
Dubois said he was moved to lift the longstanding ban on chickens after a plea from Alex Kithes, a 2009 salutatorian from Woonsocket High School who was cited by the zoning officer for keeping three chickens in his North End backyard on Jan. 16. Kithes was passionate about homegrown food and told councilors he believes the eggs he gets from his chickens are healthier for his sister, who suffers from a serious digestive condition.
In a move borrowed from the playbook of pro-chicken activists in other communities, Kithes now has a Facebook page to bolster his cause. In Cranston, for example, chicken advocates launched PECK, for People Encouraging Chicken Keeping in Greater Rhode Island. Legal chickens ultimately failed to win over Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, who vetoed a measure passed by the City Council, but people all over the country are increasingly interested in homegrown food, a trend that’s attracted the most attention, perhaps, in cities and other non-farm zones.
Kithes said he created the Facebook page, “Legalize Backyard Chickens in Woonsocket, with help from Jacques Tetreault, a Woonsocket High School student who was ordered to get rid of his chickens on Diamond Hill Road last summer. Unlike Kithes, who appealed to the City Council, Tetreault complied, though his father criticized the city’s heavy-handed approach to backyard fowl.
“Following about 10 days of activity, we currently have 88 people as members, but our group is growing every day,” said Kithes. “We started the page as a gathering place for some of the people in the city who were interested in seeing this law change, given all of the unfortunate, law-abiding citizens of Woonsocket who have had their harmless chickens confiscated in the past few years.”
Kithes said “growing and raising our own food is our right, and so what we really want is for the city government to formally recognized our rights, and to safeguard them from those who wish to take them away.”
Dubois said he modeled the ordinance after one passed in Providence and “made it stricter.” It would allow homeowners to keep up to six chickens in a coop that’s “warm, dry and predator resistant,” located at least 15 feet from the nearest property line. Roosters would still be prohibited and no one could raise chickens for their meat, only eggs.
Since The Call reported Dubois was considering introducing the measure the councilman says he’s gotten calls from a good number of residents who are quietly raising chickens under the radar. It’s sort of a “chicken underground,” says Dubois, who now personally knows of eight to 10 chicken-keepers in the city.
Meanwhile, in neighboring North Smithfield, Town Council President John Flaherty says he introduced a measure that would allow chickens in most residential zones because so many of his constituents told him it’s what they wanted.
“What prompted it was, for one thing, citizens, during the campaign,” said Flaherty. “I was going door to door and people were telling me, I’d really like to raise chickens.”
Flaherty said he introduced an ordinance modeled after one that passed not long ago in the town of Barrington. His proposal would allow property owners in most residential areas to keep up to a dozen chickens. The only zone in question are areas where house lots are 20,000 square feet or less, but it’s not out of the question yet that the council may make some provision for keeping chickens in those areas as well, he said.

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