WOONSOCKET – There may be hope yet for Alexander Kithes’ embattled backyard chickens.
City Councilman Marc Dubois says he’s seriously considering a proposal to lift the ban on keeping chickens, just as other cities and towns have done.
It may be time for the zoning ordinance to reflect modern sensibilities about food as more and more people, like the Kithes, seek to grow their own for environmental and health reasons, he says.
“It’s something that needs to be explored,” says Dubois. “I think it’s a trend where a lot of people are owning chickens for the farm fresh eggs or just for pets. As long as they’re well cared-for and not going on other people’s property and they’re properly contained, I think it’s something we need to discuss.”
On Jan. 16, Asst. Zoning Officer Leo Cote notified Kithes’ family that the three chickens they keep at their North End home are in violation of the city-wide prohibition on “farm animals,” which also covers goats, cows and pigs. The Kithes were told they had seven days to get rid of the chickens or the violation would be referred to Municipal Court.
Other chicken-keeping families have received similar notices during the last few months and have given up their fowl without a fight. But not Kithes.
After receiving the notice, the 2010 salutatorian from Woonsocket High School appeared before the City Council and told them the law should be changed. In an impassioned plea, he explained how his concerns about mass-produced, processed foods that dominate the marketplace prompted him to begin growing his own vegetables and how, eight months ago, he began raising chickens because he thought the eggs were better than store-bought for his sister, Ariana, who suffers from a chronic digestive disorder.
“I honestly consider it almost a right to produce my own food,” Kithes told The Call. “And the government is there to protect my rights.”
Kithes is no stranger to city officials, and most of them openly express admiration for his record of civic engagement, even as a teenager. Councilman Dubois first encountered him as a student advocate for preservation of advanced placement courses at Woonsocket High School several years ago, when Dubois was chairman of the School Committee. Mayor Leo T. Fontaine is also a Facebook friend of Kithes.
Now 20 and a junior at Boston University, Kithes lives with his parents and grandparents at 153 Winter St. During the week, while he’s away at college, other family members, including his father, George, take care of the chickens.
The elder Kithes doesn’t mind – they’re hardly any work at all. And he apparently shares his son’s passion for organic, homegrown food.
The native of Greece says he grew up collecting eggs from his grandmother’s coops and thought nothing of sucking down a raw one if the urge struck him.
“That’s not something you’d do with a supermarket egg,” he said during an interview at home.
Kithes says the cash-strapped city has better things to devote resources to than policing a hobby that can actually save people some money. He says the chickens don’t give off any odor or make any noise that’s potentially bothersome to neighbors and don’t attract nuisance pests, like insects or rodents.
In fact, it’s pretty hard to notice them at all. The chickens live in a small, neatly-kept coop that Kithes, a skilled woodworker, helped his son build. Not much bigger than a doghouse, the wood and wire enclosure is tucked snugly in the crook of the Kithes’ L-shaped ranch house, making it difficult to see from almost any angle.
Kithes said his son was mindful of the neighbors’ rights when he decided to raise chickens. He bought two Rhode Island Reds and two Golden Buffs as chicks last summer, but he ended up getting rid of one of them as soon as he could tell it was turning into a rooster. The remaining fowl are all hens, capable of little more noise-making than a soft cluck.
“A cat stinks worse than these chickens do,” he says. “There is no noise, completely; you can’t hear them at all.”
It’s no secret that some residents have been keeping chickens in Woonsocket for years, despite the explicit ban on the practice. City officials say the reason some, like Kithes, are given violation notices is because the chickens have caused someone to complain to the city, prompting an investigation; otherwise, the city doesn’t have the manpower to actively enforce the law.
If Woonsocket does open the door to chickens, it would join a growing list of communities that have relaxed their anti-fowl laws in response to a growing demand for homegrown produce and poultry. Toney Barrington – not the sort of place you’d expect to find a backyard coop – is among the latest converts, thanks to lobbying from some very organized pro-chicken citizens.
Alex Kithes says more than two dozen of the state’s 39 cities and towns now permit residents to keep chickens, including Providence and other urban areas.
In Cranston, a group calling itself People Encouraging Chicken Keeping, or PECK, helped persuade the City Council to adopt an ordinance permitting residents to keep chickens in November, but Mayor Allan Fung later vetoed the measure. The mayor said he was concerned that keeping chickens might adversely affect property values and exacerbate an existing problem with rodent infestations in some areas.
Woonsocket’s mayor says he’s has an open mind, but it’s hard to predict what he would do without seeing some specifics from the City Council.
“Enforcement becomes the issue depending on how the ordinance is structured,” says Fontaine. “But I would certainly consider it.”
Dubois says he would not propose a chicken ordinance without safeguards to protect neighbors. He says he plans on meeting with Kithes this weekend to look over some model ordinances and might introduce something before the end of February.
In the meantime, he says, he hopes the zoning office holds back on issuing Kithes a summons.
“If people know this is something that’s going to be discussed or amended, I would hope they’d hold off on citing the poor guy,” he says.