Howard council meeting abuzz over bees

Measure would relax zoning rules; opponents worry about safety

December 27, 2010|By Larry Carson, The Baltimore Sun

Beekeepers and their allies were out in swarms to persuade the Howard County Council to relax zoning restrictions on their activities, but critics weren't conceding anything at the public hearing.

The hearing drew far more people interested in bees than those who came to argue over proposed design guidelines and sign standards for the new downtown Columbia, which was also on the agenda. Chairman Calvin Ball told the crowd that though all of the bills discussed Monday night are eligible for a vote Jan. 3, decisions on the more contentious issues might be put off until February to allow further discussion. The honeybee issue dominated the evening.

"I can't understand how this has created this level of controversy," said Ann Jones of Ellicott City, the last of nearly three dozen speakers at the three-hour hearing on the proposed beehive zoning regulation change Monday night at the George Howard Building.

Jones recalled her youth in a rural Howard County with one-tenth the current population, when European honeybees lived wild in what she called "bee trees," most of which have long since been cut down. "I'm not sure the bees are the problem," she said.

Beekeeper groups from Baltimore and Washington urged the council to change zoning rules that now classify the insects, vital to plant life, in the same way as farm animals, which must be kept at least 200 feet from a neighbor's home.

Bee advocates set up an elaborate display outside the council chamber to greet the dozens who came to testify and stood on cue from Janice Asato of Mount Airy, president of the Howard County Beekeepers Association, to show their unity. The bill sponsored by West Columbia Democrat Mary Kay Sigaty and Fulton Republican Greg Fox would reduce the setback requirement to 25 feet, or to 10 feet if the beekeeper puts up a 6-foot-high fence or hedge.

"Given the benefits of honeybees, you would think passing this bill would be easy," said master beekeeper Juan "Woody" Medina. He recalled, however, that the county planning board unanimously recommended against passage of the bill, based on fears that having beehives near homes could cause problems.

That judgment, Medina told the council, was based on "factual errors and contradictions" and should be ignored. The board and some witnesses confuse harmless honeybees, who rarely sting and die when they do, with more aggressive wasps, yellow jackets and hornets, he said. Beekeepers contended that honeybees are not aggressive and won't hurt anyone, showing slides of hives in Baltimore rowhouse backyards with people standing next to them.

"This is really an important measure for our ecosystem and our environment," said Medina, founder of a group called Don't Squeeze the Bees.

But Sam Peperone, the Hickory Ridge resident whose complaint more than a year ago about bees living across a fence from his backyard started the dispute, conceded nothing, despite the fact that he was outnumbered.

"I had to fight with the bees to get my sprinkler back," Peperone told the council about his latest battle with thirsty bees that swarmed on his lawn sprinkler last summer. "I can't have a pool in my yard for my grandchildren."

Peperone said that if someone accidentally steps on a honeybee, he might be stung, a serious problem for anyone severely allergic, but he did not report anyone having been stung. He said he knows the difference between yellow jackets and honeybees.

"I have no problem with all these beekeepers around the county," he said. "I'm concerned with the problem I have."

He argued that since the county's zoning enforcement is driven by individual complaints, leaving the zoning rules as they are won't put beekeepers out of business, because only hives that draw a complaint will be affected.

Councilwoman Courtney Watson acknowledged that Peperone's "frustration is real" and asked beekeepers how his problem might be remedied. Jones said it might be fixed by giving the bees in the nearby yard of Jeri and Dan Hemmerlein more water, though others said that since bees can fly, they go where they want.

Nancy Pilotte, a neighbor who supports Peperone, said "the issue is risk management" and that easing the rules would create too much risk. She said that having tens of thousands of honeybees close to homes increases the risks to neighbors. Other witnesses noted that private covenants in Columbia's villages might prevent hives anyway because of restrictions on fences.

David Morris of Laurel, a past president of the Maryland Beekeepers Association, urged the council to "consider the facts and not fears and hyperbole." Only 15 percent of the bees in a hive go out to forage, he said. "Bees are not a nuisance."

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