The Call and Times, Column 10 – A Good Idea

24 07 2014

(July 4, 2014)

The Urban Farmer

A Good Idea

The topic of my column this month is so important to me, and to the people of this city, that I will skip my normal, lengthy introduction, and get right to the matter at hand: the Woonsocket City Council is considering an ordinance that will legalize backyard chickens.

The law being discussed by the City Council is pretty straightforward, and similar in the regulations that it establishes to those in other cities and towns in the state. If the ordinance becomes law, I will write a much more detailed column, so my readers are well-informed of these regulations, and about the process required in order to apply for a permit. Right now, I will give a brief overview. The ordinance is a public document, and is available through the City Clerk, for anyone interested in reading it.

The ordinance establishes a list of rules that are termed “the proper care and keeping of chickens”, that must be followed in order to obtain a permit. These define where in the city chickens can be kept – R-1, R-2, and R-3 districts, on lots with at least 800 sq-ft of lot area per bird. They also define the situation of the coop in the applicant’s lot, limiting it to the rear yard and establishing distances from property lines and neighbors’ houses. They define essential requirements for the chicken coop – protection from predators and weather, cleanliness, and adequate space – and require that the feed be stored securely, and that manure be composted in enclosed containers. The regulations also include the basics in chicken-keeping etiquette – no roosters, no chickens indoors, no chickens allowed on neighbors’ property, and no slaughtering within the city – and limit the number of chickens to five in any lot.

Providing these regulations, the ordinance establishes Backyard Chicken Keeping as what is called a Special Use, a distinct type of land use that, according to the City’s Zoning law (Appendix C), is only permitted with “approval by the zoning board of review and [the] issuance of a special use permit”. In my understanding, this is done so an individual’s situation can be assessed, and the Zoning Board can be sure that they are fully informed of the law, are able and willing to follow all of the rules, and are doing so in consideration of their neighbors. In total, between the filing fee, the payment to the Zoning Board, and the abutter-notification (letter) fee, it will cost around $300 for an average homeowner to apply for this Special Use Permit. While this does seem like a lot, so long as the applicant follows all chicken-related laws, this permit is valid as long as they care to continue keeping chickens; in contrast, a $50-plus-per-year permit fee, like what is common in other municipalities, adds up very quickly over the years. Plus, the value of the eggs and the fertilizer makes up this cost very quickly (I’ve calculated it).

Having read this ordinance many times, and asked a few of the council-members about the motivations behind the regulations, I am confident that this ordinance will work well in our city.

On the one hand, this is far more restrictive than any other “pet law” in Woonsocket. Not to say that the law makes it difficult for responsible, industrious homeowners to get chickens, but this ordinance is much more specific in its permissions granted than other pet laws. While others are regulated with 1) a small fee to obtain a permit and 2) leash and droppings laws for when they are taken off the owner’s property, this chicken ordinance is more restrictive – not only are the chickens not allowed near others’ property, but the basic standards of everything from the coop placement to the treatment of the chickens is ensured by an agreement entered into by the homeowner and the Zoning Board, and only through that pretty hefty permit fee.

What’s more, this law is on the more restrictive side as far as chicken laws go in the U.S. Even with lower application fees and less restrictive regulations, many other U.S. cities and towns (including some major cities like New York and San Francisco) have legalized chickens with little problem. A local example is Providence, which has a population density nearly twice that of our own, and where chickens were legalized in 2010. Even with a lower (initial) application fee and less rules, their Animal Control Office reported only about five chicken-related complaints each year, most of which were easily rectified.

Probably the most important factor that guarantees the success of this ordinance is that it’s in the best interest of the people to follow it. On the one hand, the Special Use permit fee is a big initial investment, and together with the time and effort required to apply for the permit, makes it an investment that none will make haphazardly. What’s more, the regulations that the ordinance puts in place are the normal rules of good chicken-keeping, rules that an urban farmer will follow because they make for happy chickens. If chickens are unhappy, they will not produce eggs, and will become a money drain.

Before moving on, I’d like to make a brief comment on the closely-related issue of enforcement. When writing laws, there is never a guarantee that everyone will follow them – never. But in this case, no one in their right mind would invest their time, money, and effort into obtaining a permit (and, not to mention, buying a coop) if they do not intend to keep their chickens well, because the cost can only be justified if the flock is happy and productive. With the application fee, the Special Use Permit application process, and the various regulations that would be put in place, only those very dedicated to doing so the right way will opt to keep chickens – can any other law brag the same level of certainty?

So now that we know why this ordinance will work, I think it’s important to discuss why we need to afford people the opportunity to raise a few backyard chickens. On the most basic level, chickens are a very important element of sustainable urban agriculture. They eat food and yard wastes, turning fallen leaves, vegetable peels, and stale bread into eggs; they are efficient and inexpensive pest control, keeping the lawn and garden free from grubs, beetles, and caterpillars; their manure is an indispensible garden fertilizer, saving the gardener hundreds of dollars per year on soil fertility amendments; and most importantly, they produce delicious, nutritious eggs, adding an excellent source of protein and good fats to our tomatoes, raspberries, and green beans.

They also provide an array of benefits to the surrounding area, which in this case is the City of Woonsocket. Their manure helps to build the soil’s organic matter, which reduces water runoff and therefore stops further pollution of the river and groundwater, and increases the amount of pollutants that the soil filters out of the air. Furthermore because 20 to 30% of residential solid waste is food and yard wastes, chickens help to reduce the solid waste load on the city’s sanitation department. In addition, chicken-keeping provides for better use of land, by enabling a residential lot to serve the additional purpose of producing food – and productive land use is a concept central to our city’s Comprehensive Plan.

Finally, there is a lot to be said of the advantages of urban agriculture in general, of which a huge part is backyard chicken-keeping. Urban agriculture is a central concept to the idea of the “American spirit”, making homeowners into homesteaders, and adding a measure of self-sufficiency and security that is in serious deficit in our modern world. In this way, it also contributes to the financial well-being of the backyard farmers, who reap incredible benefits to their pocketbooks in the form of essentially free, organic food. And this food brings good health to the people, who are not exposed to the toxic chemicals, GMOs, and diseases present in the products of our modern, industrial food system (but not in small-scale, backyard agriculture). And finally, urban agriculture contributes to what some have termed the “greening of America” – the idea that, by using less harsh chemicals, practicing traditional rather than industrial factory farming, and using land that is already part of development (i.e. the residential backyard) rather than clear-cutting forests for our agriculture, urban agriculture will help to solve the dismal environmental problems that we face as a nation, a world, and a species.

Everywhere else on Earth, from the poorest countries in the developing world, to the richest countries in Europe, and even many cities and towns in the United States, people keep chickens without problem, because they are a necessary and incredibly productive part of urban agriculture. Chicken-keepers reap the benefits of fresh, nutritious eggs, a bond with their friends and neighbors that can come only with the sharing of food produced by the sweat of their own brow, and a concrete sense of security in their own home’s ability to feed them, and to thus keep them alive.

The passage of this ordinance would help to make Woonsocket, our home, one of those places. It is for this reason that I urge you all to reach out to the City Council members, whose contact information is available on the city’s website (, as soon as possible, to let them know that you support this ordinance. I applaud the city council for discussing this issue, and would like to specifically thank the four council-members who have signed on to express their support for its passage.

My column appears on the first Friday of each month in The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times. The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.




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