Where the Chickens Come Home to Roost

Eight years ago, Steve Stycos of the Cranston City Council proposed an ordinance to allow chickens to be kept in backyard areas by residents. The ordinance passed through the council, but was eventually vetoed by Mayor Alan Fung and the council couldn’t gather enough votes to override it.

In the intervening years, there has been some confusion over the veto’s actual effect. Currently, under Cranston ordinance, residents are allowed to keep chickens; however, according to Drake Patten, head farmer at Cluck!, many have believed that the veto made the practice a violation of city regulations.

Title Six of the Cranston municipal code makes specific stipulations regarding swine animals and horses, as well as regulations related to the keeping and hitching of animals. This is in line with Patten’s assertion that the code does not regulate chickens or other birds and farm animals. However, according to Stycos, the code might be unclear on what is regulated and what is not.

“I think the language is somewhat unclear in city ordinances and I don’t remember all the details,” Stycos said. “…My best guess is the ordinances say you can keep farm animals in some zones and is silent on the other zones, implying that they are not allowed, but not saying so directly.”

He further stated that there may be a question over whether the existing code covers chickens.

“A well-crafted ordinance would benefit the city by making sure backyard chickens are kept in safe and sanitary conditions that do not disturb neighbors,” Stycos said. He noted that the current Cranston City Council would still not be able to gather the votes to override what he called a “likely” veto by Fung.

Patten agreed that an ordinance would ensure that chicken-keeping was protected for those who are raising the birds, but would also protect the chickens and ensure they are raised safely.

In Patten’s role at Cluck!, she interacts with those who have started their own backyard farming efforts, which takes the shape of food growing, beekeeping and animal-keeping, including chickens, and extending to rabbits, ducks and other animals. The interest in backyard farming and animal-keeping has risen in recent years, she said, with more people interested in sustainability and growing their own food.

Often, she said, as people’s skills grow, they become interested in expanding their setups. Someone may start with growing vegetables in their backyard, she said, but after learning and attaining more ability within that arena, they may want to expand to bee-keeping or raising ducks.

Cluck! helps to educate those who are interested in starting their own backyard setups, including animals and plants. This covers retail support, classes, books and a focus on the social mission of encouraging farming in urban and peri-urban spaces. The store has recently moved to Cranston after spending five years on the West Side of Providence.

Those who are interested in doing this may face a variety of challenges, depending on where they live. Rhode Island’s regulations vary by city, which can be frustrating for these who are starting to delve into some aspect of backyard farming.

“Rhode Island is pretty reasonable,” Patten said. Providence’s ordinance is pro-chicken, she said, but some communities face stricter regulations and are not friendly toward particular aspects of farming. Similarly, enforcement of these regulations may vary from town to town.

“To not allow people to raise food, I think, is problematic,” she said.

Most people she encounters who begin to raise chickens or other animals may be looking to raise some form of food. For chickens, that frequently means eggs, and some families may come to regard their animals as pets, she said.

Tina, Louise and Gayle, three ducks living in the backyard belonging to Corey, a Cumberland resident, have certainly come to be regarded in this way.

Corey, who is 29 and lives with his girlfriend, said they have come to know the ducks’ personalities. They are an addition to an already animal-friendly home; he and his girlfriend also take care of a dog, a cat and a lizard.

Corey and his girlfriend were originally interested in the ducks for their eggs. But now? “[The ducks] are a part of the family,” he said.

Corey and his girlfriend live in a neighborhood with close neighbors and apartment-style residences made out of old mill housing. The ducks live in an enclosure in the backyard, he said, where they have a house, a heat lamp and pools of water. They are not visible from the road. At times, the ducks are let out of the enclosure, always under supervision, and children in the neighborhood like to come visit the ducks.

“Nobody’s cared, nobody’s complained,” Corey said of his neighbors.

Cumberland has regulations regarding the keeping of animals such as ducks. Among them are rules stipulating that the enclosures for these animals cannot be too close to a neighbor’s property and ducks may be kept only in single family homes. Though other regulations have been met, he said, these are the two that Corey is aware he is breaking.

However, Corey noted that his neighbors are alright with the setup currently arranged, and though he and his girlfriend live in an apartment, the building is his parents’ and a friend lives upstairs.

“It doesn’t bother anybody in my house … it didn’t seem like a reason not to get ducks,” he said.

Similarly, Patten stated that many people in Cranston keep chickens. She said she often sees chickens become a gateway for backyard farmers who become interested in expanding to care for other animals like goats or quail.

“[They] get a little itch for something else,” she said.

She explained that in spite of some regulatory challenges in some areas, backyard farming has a robust support system that helps it thrive in RI. The state has many small farms that backyard farmers can visit and learn from that make them feel like they are part of a community. The small farms are, in turn, helped by the RI food culture, which has seen increasing interest in farm-to-table and locally sourced food.

“You can see it. You can visit it,” Patten said.

That type of friendly, accessible farming community is a big part of the success of small backyard farms in the state. Additionally, there is interest in community gardens, for those who may not have access to a backyard to grow their own food. These often have waiting lists, she said.

For the time being, a pro-chicken ordinance in Cranston appears unlikely. However, for many, this will remain an issue that is not just close to home, but in their own backyards.