New zoning rules that would make it easier for local beekeepers to operate near homes are set to be introduced as legislation after Monday night's formal swearing-in of the county executive and council, despite the county planning board's unanimous rejection of the idea in February.
County beekeepers and their supporters think that enforcement of the county's current zoning, which classifies honeybees as farm animals that must be kept at least 200 feet from the nearest dwelling, is wrong. The new bill sponsored by West Columbia Democrat Mary Kay Sigaty and Fulton Republican Greg Fox would reduce that distance to 25 feet, or 10 feet with a 6-foot-high fence or hedge.
"This was done in bipartisan fashion," Fox said, and the change is backed by experts who say European honeybees are not aggressive and won't sting unless attacked. He, like other advocates, said encouraging beekeepers is good for both the economy and the environment, since bees are vital to plant pollination, and bees in commercial hives have been mysteriously dying off in recent years.
To ease the sting of opposition from people uneasy about the thought of having swarms of bees near their homes, master beekeeper Woody Medina formed an educational organization called "Don't Squeeze the Bees" to spread the word that yellow jackets and wasps do the stinging, not the industrious European honeybees.
"We came together to raise awareness to the issues," he said. The group, an offshoot of the Howard County Beekeepers Association, has been visiting garden clubs, farmers' markets and the Howard County Fair to bolster their case.
Advocates for bees, as well as those against the proposed bill, are expected at the council's monthly public hearing at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 20 in the George Howard Building.
The issue surfaced last year after Sam Peperone's complaint months earlier about the beehives owned by his neighbors, Dan and Jeri Hemmerlein, on their 3.5-acre farm remnant just across his fence in Hickory Ridge, West Columbia.
Peperone said he found a swarm of bees one warm spring day around the water dripping from his air conditioner, and he feared that his grandchildren or someone allergic to bee stings could be hurt. Nothing has changed since then, Peperone said, and he still wants the current zoning law enforced and not changed.
"They've got more bees," Peperone said, adding that he again found them swarming in his yard this past summer.
"I went to pick up my sprinkler and bees were all over it," he said, though he was not stung. He feels so strongly about the issue that he plans to show up in person to testify, even though he'll have to fly home from visiting his daughter in Florida to do it.
The Hemmerleins say their bees are thriving, having survived last winter's heavy snows. Dan Hemmerlein added, "To my knowledge, nobody in the neighborhood's been stung to death."
"We're encouraged because Sigaty and Fox are still on board," said Janice Asato, president of the county beekeepers' group. "We're very hopeful," she said about the bill's passage.
Fox said he doesn't know how other council members will vote, but he's "confident" that he and Sigaty can attract at least one more vote from the five-member panel.
In February, the county planning board voted unanimously not to recommend passage of the zoning regulation change, saying that allowing beehives within 25 feet of neighboring homes was too close for comfort.
"The idea of having beehives in the back of townhouses just doesn't make sense," said board member Tammy Citaramanis before the 4-0 vote. Another member said she'd rather keep beehives out of Columbia's separate New Town zoning. Hemmerlein said at the time that the vote was "sad."
Sigaty said the board's vote mystified her. "Two people said it was a problem," she said, compared with dozens of supporters backed by experts. "This is actually a huge ecological issue," she said, referring to the recent devastation of vital bee colonies.
Fox agreed. "All the expert testimony supports [the zoning rule change]," he said, adding that he feels the public supports the change, too. "It's irresponsible not to do something."
There are 1,425 registered beekeepers in Maryland and 83 in Howard County, according to state apiarist Jerry E. Fischer Sr. Baltimore City has 36 beekeepers, some of whom live close to neighbors' homes.