By Tom Shevlin
NEWPORT – It's sometime after 5 a.m. off Broadway and a rooster's crow echos through the morning. Somewhere across town, neighbors are awoken in similar fashion.
Later in the day, the zoning officer is called and an investigation ensues. Over shrubs and through fences, they snap photos, documenting what is becoming an increasingly popular practice: raising and keeping backyard chickens.
"We've been seeing a number of complaints over the last few months," says Guy Weston, the city's zoning officer. According to Weston, just in the last few weeks, he's issued citations to a pair of homeowners who, he notes, are in clear violation of a little-known city zoning ordinance.
That ordinance, 17.100.120, reads as follows: "With the exception of household pets, no livestock or poultry are to be kept on any lot of less than three acres in size." It also provides that "Any building used for housing livestock and poultry or the storage of fertilizer or manure is to be located not less than one hundred (100) feet from any property or street line."
At least two more homeowners have also been investigated over poultry-related complaints, with one going so far as municipal court. As a zoning violation, homeowners who refuse to comply with the ordinance could face a $500 a day fine.
"Last year it was wind turbines, this year it's chickens," Weston says, alluding to recent wrangling over the appropriateness of residential wind turbines.
In the most general terms, only properties within the city's R-160 zones – specifically, those around Ocean Drive – are permitted to keep chickens. However, in some urban environments, the practice has been gaining a measure of acceptance.
Two years ago, Providence passed a measure that allows residents to keep a limited number of chickens for domestic use. At the time, urban farmers and immigrant communities heralded the decision. Others, including locavores here in Newport, were inspired by it. After all, they say, Middletown allows homeowners to keep chickens, and just last year, Barrington's Town Council voted to allow up to a maximum of three hens on any one lot (roosters are not allowed).
There's even a Facebook group: People Encouraging Chicken Keeping, (or P.E.C.K. for short) that advocates the repeal of laws in Rhode Island that make keeping chickens in cities illegal.
One chicken owner who lives on the Middletown-Newport line, said it's hard to understand why the city is cracking down on domestic egg producing operations.
"They're harmless and you wouldn't even know they're here," he said.
Others, however, worry that if the city were to allow chickens, it could create a nuisance.
According to Weston, Newport's compact setting, concerns over noise, and our recent bout with coyotes are just a few reasons why planners placed the ordinance restriction in the city's Comprehensive Land Use Plan and why it would likely be hard to repeal.
Councilwoman Jeanne-Marie Napolitano, who lives in the city's first ward, says that she recognizes the desire by some to raise the birds, but doesn't believe the council will be making any changes to its ordinances any time soon.
"I don't see it (changing)," Napolitano said. "We have an ordinance in place, and so far there have only been isolated incidents."