BURRILLVILLE – After months of debate, discussion, public input and revisions, the Burrillville Town Council voted unanimously this month to adopt an ordinance governing where and how residents are allowed to keep chickens.
At a meeting on Wednesday, Jan. 10, a final revision was made to expand permissions for free range birds, a reaction, in part, to objections by residents who questioned the need for the restriction.
“There are already perfectly adequate ordinances addressing the potential of animals straying from the owner’s property,” said resident Ben Ryan, pointing to language elsewhere in town law stating that it’s unlawful to fail to restrain one’s animal, and allow it to trespass.
The amendments mark the town’s first detailed law on the issue, with changes to Chapter 4 and 30 of Burrillville’s code of ordinances, as well as Section 30-71 of the Zoning District Use Table. The revisions were originally laid out by the town’s Planning Department at request of Burrillville Animal Control after an increase in chicken ownership had reportedly resulted in some 4 to 5 complaints per week.
Previously, chickens were only legally allowed on properties of five acres or more that were zoned Farming Residential without a special use permit obtained from the Zoning Board. Enforcement relied strictly on complaints, and animal control officials noted that there were many residents keeping the birds illegally.
The new laws are expected to bring many in town into compliance.
“Everybody was out of compliance before this started,” said Councilor Raymond Trinque. “I think it’s a great improvement over nothing, which is what we had before. It was just a free for all.”
The question of where to allow free range chickens presented a final obstacle this month, with Councilors Jeremy Bailey and Dennis Anderson initially agreeing that the language was redundant with other laws already on the books in town. The version under debate this month had planned to strictly limit free range birds to properties of more than five acres.
“I think it’s redundant to even have the free range in here at all,” Anderson said. “It already says they have to stay on their property.”
Town Manager Michael Wood argued against the councilors’ move to eliminate the clause completely.
“I don’t see how that’s practical or reasonable,” Wood said. “The smaller the lot, the less opportunity you’re going to be able to control the chickens. I don’t want the animal control department running around trying to find chickens.”
Animal Control Officer Kerry Courtemanche pointed out that state law requires that the animals have reasonable protection from predators, and that free range chickens can interact with foul that could be carrying bird flu.
“The expectation is those chickens would have a coop with a run,” Courtemanche said of all birds on properties of less than five acres. “They would not be free roaming the property.”
“I think the free range argument is ridiculous,” Trinque said. “I’d like to see who is raising chickens right now with no restrictions. If you don’t restrict your chickens in some way they’re going to belong to someone else.”
“We’re going to have people who want to follow their own set of rules,” said Wood. “Just remember what you do will have to be enforced by us.”
Resident Ryan had also raised concerns that the law was unconstitutional, in violation of the Right to Farm Act, and that it was inconsistent with language in the town’s comprehensive plan that aims to encourage agriculture and preservation of Burrillville’s rural character.
Town Solicitor William Dimitri disputed the assessments.
“There’s nothing unconstitutional about it,” said Dimitri. “Protecting the rural aspect of the town does not prohibit the town from setting regulations.”
On the free range issue, Dimitri added, “The provisions are not inconsistent with each other. You can’t talk to a chicken and say, ‘you have to stay on this property.’ That’s why the provisions provides for free range – 5 acres or more – because there’s sufficient land.”
Bailey and Anderson ultimately settled for a compromise, requiring a special use permit for free range birds on properties under five acres.
The new amendments take effect May 10, with enforcement measures still to be determined The complete revised law can be found here.