Howard County beekeepers are looking to the County Council for zoning relief after the planning board unanimously recommended denial of a proposal that would allow hives within 25 feet of an adjoining property.
The board also concluded hearing testimony Thursday night on a plan to build 325 new homes on a portion of historic Doughoregan Manor but put off discussion of a recommendation on that issue until Feb. 19.
Bees are now in the same zoning category as farm animals in Howard, which means the hives must be at least 200 feet from an adjoining property, a rule so restrictive it prompted an outpouring of support in November from beekeepers across the Baltimore area advocating for a change. They insist that honeybees are harmless and haven't caused any problem if not disturbed, even in urban neighborhoods in Baltimore.
But board members were leery of having bees close to other homes, especially in heavily populated areas such as Columbia.
"It's best to leave it out of New Town," board chairwoman Linda Dombrowski said during a discussion before the 4-0 vote.
"The idea of having beehives in the back of town houses just doesn't make sense," agreed Tammy Citaramanis.
The board felt the county should study the issue and devise a detailed zoning policy for beehives instead of simply changing the setback requirements.
The bee issue arose almost two years ago when west Columbia resident Sam Peperone noticed a swarm of bees from his neighbor's hives hovering around the water from his air conditioner. He and others complained, worrying the insects would sting people who might be allergic and would threaten their home values. But the complaint produced a big reaction.
Dan and Jerri Hemerlein are Peparone's bee-loving neighbors, living on a 3.5-acre remnant of an old farm in Clary's Forest. Their row of hives is placed near their rear fence for maximum sunlight and benefit to the bees, the Hemerleins said. Having to move them would damage the fragile bee ecology.
"I think they're going in the wrong direction," Dan Hemerlein said about the board members. "It's still fear-based decision-making. It's sad." The County Council gets final say on the issue, however.
The sensitive Doughoregan development issue attracted support from several groups Thursday night, including the League of Women Voters and the St. Johns Community Association, though it also drew passionate objections from residents who live near the 221 acres proposed for the cluster of new homes.
Grace Kubofcik, president of the League of Women Voters, said her group was "conflicted," but felt the property is unique and so historic that preservation must prevail over zoning concerns.
Diane Butler, president of the St. Johns Community Association, said "this project comes down to picking your product." If the Carrolls can't extend county water and sewer lines and change the zoning to enable them to cluster the new homes in the northeast corner of the estate, they'll be forced to build on multi-acre lots with wells and septic systems throughout the property.
"This piece of history is invaluable and irreplaceable," she said.
But critics said adding public utilities would strain the county's wastewater system, create intolerable traffic on Centennial Lane and benefit one family while shutting the public out. They fear Burnside Drive, which dead-ends at Doughoregan, would be opened to traffic, though a 20-year-old county legal agreement with the community forbids that.
In addition, a plan to pretreat wastewater from the homes for nitrogen removal as it moves through sewer pipes has led to accusations that there could be odors or too much volume for the county's wastewater treatment plant in Savage.
Steve Gerwin, director of the county's Bureau of Utilities, said the county wastewater treatment plant has the capacity to handle the project, but the extension of utilities to more homes increases the risk of future nutrient violations of state requirements.
Amit Pramanik, an environmental engineer, told the board that treating for nitrogen removal at Doughoregan will cost up to $8 million for a plant and perhaps $1 million per year to operate.
"Odor is an issue," he said.
"I'm astonished by the one-sidedness of this deal," testified local resident Larry Jeeter. "I see it as a way of preserving one small family's way of life."
Resident Christina Delmont-Small said allowing the utilities and changing the zoning would set a precedent. The issue should await updating of the county's General Plan later this year.
But Sang Oh, the Carroll family's attorney, told the board that Burnside Drive would not be opened and the family wants to place its promises in writing in a formal agreement. In addition, the developers would pay the entire cost of nitrogen removal.
"There's no doubt that Burnside Drive will remain closed," Oh said, adding that the county's choice is more like "pick your poison" rather than pick your product.