2014-03-27 / Front Page

Fowl Found Not Foul

Board Votes for Chickens
By Barry Bridges


Newport’s Zoning Board of Review recently voted to permit Caswell Avenue resident Bill Murdock (pictured with friend) to keep the chickens he has maintained on the property for almost two years. The current ordinance governing chicken ownership, enacted last year, permits residents to keep up to six chickens (no roosters) on residential properties. The board heard objections from neighbors concerned that the presence of the fowl would negatively impact their quality of life, but found there was no evidence to support the claims. Board members found that the owner was more than adequately maintaining his coop. (Photo by Angela Varacalli) Newport’s Zoning Board of Review recently voted to permit Caswell Avenue resident Bill Murdock (pictured with friend) to keep the chickens he has maintained on the property for almost two years. The current ordinance governing chicken ownership, enacted last year, permits residents to keep up to six chickens (no roosters) on residential properties. The board heard objections from neighbors concerned that the presence of the fowl would negatively impact their quality of life, but found there was no evidence to support the claims. Board members found that the owner was more than adequately maintaining his coop. (Photo by Angela Varacalli) In the first request under the city’s new ordinance allowing residents to keep chickens on certain residential properties, the Newport Zoning Board of Review has given the OK for an existing coop at 36 Caswell Ave.

At its monthly meeting on Monday, March 24, the board entertained a petition from Newport resident Bill Murdock seeking a special use permit for a coop and six hens. Although the henhouse has been in place for nearly two years, Murdock appeared before the board because he did not previously request the necessary approvals. Several neighbors took the opportunity to object to his selfdescribed “pets.”

Murdock is no stranger to defending his chickens from neighborhood complaints. In years past, he has even found himself in municipal court arguing a losing case. However, this time the revised ordinance was a friend to his cause.

Testifying on his own behalf, Murdock said that his chickens supply eggs to local soup kitchens. “It’s like you’re giving them a $50 gift certificate,” he said. “They really appreciate it. They just don’t have it as well as we do.” In response to questions from board members, Murdock described how he cared for the fowl, changing their water and cleaning the coop daily. He offered that “they also give me pleasure just watching them. They create very little noise, if any. Some of my neighbors didn’t even know I had chickens.”

Newport Zoning Officer Guy Weston told the board that he had visited the property and confirmed that the coop was well-kept and complied with requirements.

Neighboring property owners disagreed with the rustic charms of keeping chickens and presented their thoughts to the board. Darlene Pezza, the owner of 34 Caswell Ave., reviewed several reasons for her opposition. “I don’t want to smell the chickens or hear their clucking,” she said. She maintained that chickens constitute a salmonella risk and carry lice and mites, and also emphasized that Murdock did not follow proper channels in initially setting up the coop. “I do not want farm animals in my neighborhood,” she stated.

Board member Lynn Ceglie interjected with a reminder of the new “chicken ordinance” and in so doing foreshadowed the board’s eventual decision. She said, “The ordinance allows chickens, so we have to decide whether this particular coop will have adverse effects.”

Ceglie was referencing the City Council’s amendment to Chapter 17.100 of Newport’s ordinances in September of 2013 that opened the door to chicken-keeping under specified conditions. The provision stipulates that six hens (not roosters) are permitted, provided that there is a well-ventilated coop not exceeding eight feet in height and 64 square feet in area. A fenced outdoor enclosure is an additional requirement. Previously, only larger properties such as those on Ocean Drive were allowed to host the birds. But with the modified ordinance, Newport became the latest in a growing number of urban and suburban communities to condone chickens in residential zones.

Additional objections to the coop were voiced by Susan Anderson, a neighbor who wondered about the safety of children at nearby Vernon playground. She conceded that Murdock washed down the coop, but questioned whether there was run-off. A third neighbor also emphasized the park’s proximity and worried about smells emanating on 90-degree days. “It’s the City by the Sea, not the ‘Country by the Sea,’” she said.

In rebuttal, Murdock contended that there are no offensive smells and that the noise is barely audible. He read a letter from a supporter that contrasted to the objectors’ letters and testimony. “I’ve had the chicken coop for two years,” he added. “There have been no problems except through people who want to create problems.”

As the testimony ended and the board began its deliberations, it was clear that members were not swayed by the comments lodged against the coop. Members Donald Boucher and Christopher Kirwin, drawing upon their own knowledge of chickens, flatly asserted that smells and noise are not problems.

Chair Rebecca McSweeney said, “The concerns of the neighbors are important, but the problem is that there is no proof of those concerns. They are totally anecdotal. It appears that the chickens are very well cared for and that the coop is well-maintained and clean.” She continued, “Chicken-keeping does not diminish property values. It is not disruptive to neighborhoods and there is no evidence that chickens cause diseases.”

Honoring the guidance of the new city ordinance, the board gave its unanimous approval to the coop for two years. In a small concession to opponents, Murdock will be required to make another appearance in one year to discuss any problems or issues related to his feathered friends.

Although Kirwin voiced a concern prior to the vote that a twoyear approval would create a precedent for future cases, McSweeney stressed that the Zoning Board does not operate on precedent, with each case being its “own animal.” Moreover, Weston told the group that he is aware of only a few other residents waiting in the wings to set up henhouses.

The public will have the opportunity to make additional comments when Murdock reports back to the board next year.

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