Howard council approves relaxed rules on backyard beekeeping

Columbia sign and design rules votes postponed

February 08, 2011|By Larry Carson, The Baltimore Sun

Howard County's 85 beekeepers are happy about the new, bee-friendly rules unanimously approved Monday night by the Howard County Council, but Sam Peperone is not.

Peperone, a retired West Columbia man, started the debate over bees three years ago by complaining that neighbors Dan and Jeri Hemerlein's bees were swarming on his property, searching for water. The process ended Monday night in an overhaul of zoning rules that had classified the insects as farm animals and required them to be 200 feet from a neighbor's property.

The new rules allow hives to be within 10 feet of a neighboring home if a 6-foot-high fence or hedge is in place, and one amendment says bees must not "unreasonably interfere with the property of others or the comfort of the public." Another amendment requires beekeepers to force the insects to fly at least 6 feet above any high deck on an adjoining house, and a third allows them in front yards, if at least 50 feet back from the street.

"This has been an incredible journey," said County Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a West Columbia Democrat who sponsored the bill along with Fulton Republican Greg Fox.

"We owe a lot of thank-yous on this one," Fox said.

Jen Terrasa, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat who sponsored one of the amendments, said learning about new things is "one of the things I love about my job and, boy, have I learned a lot about bees." The bill becomes law 60 days after it is signed by County Executive Ken Ulman.

Woody Medina, head of a group called Don't Squeeze the Bees and a member of the Howard County Beekeepers' Association, attended the meeting in the George Howard building and said, "We're obviously very happy, but also very humbled by the support from the county. We're only 85 beekeepers. Our voice isn't loud enough. We had to get people involved."

But Peperone feels his interests weren't protected, he said, despite Ellicott City Democrat Courtney Watson's anti-nuisance amendment, which she said "made me more comfortable with the bill." Speaking to bee advocates in the audience after the vote, Watson said she too has learned lots about bees and expects the hobbyists have learned about how the government works, too.

"This is a good example of how the legislative process should work," she said.

Pererone, who did not attend the meeting, said later that "it allows beekeepers to do anything they want."

"It denies me the use of my property," he said, referring to his complaints that bees come into his yard in swarms looking for water in dry, hot weather. "They said that's OK." If he has a new complaint, he said, he'd have to file a new zoning complaint, which would put him back at square one.

Beekeepers from around the state have converged on the county over the past few years to push for a change in the current rules. Watson's amendment was similar to a law in Baltimore City, where beekeepers testified that hives are sometimes kept in small rowhouse backyards and yet have provoked no complaints. The beekeepers contend that European honeybees rarely sting, but catch the blame from people who don't know the difference between the industrious honey-makers and more aggressive yellow jackets and wasps.

The council postponed votes until March on design guidelines for downtown Columbia, which must be approved before any of the much-heralded reconstruction projects can submit specific plans and get under way, and on new rules for signs in the downtown area. The council has been frustrated by the complex sign-regulation bill, with members unsure whether to allow electronic signs or how to regulate them.

On another matter, the council voted to allow the sale of up to $27.5 million in bonds to buy the Ascend One building — a 160,000-square-foot, two-level office building in east Columbia that the county has been renting for the past two years.

The $26 million purchase is seen as a cost-efficient move to provide a large, convenient location for county offices at a bargain price, since the first few years of bond payments will be provided by rent the private Ascend One debt collection firm will pay to lease one-quarter of the building. The purchase will also allow the county to stop renting office space for the health department, and stop paying rent on the Ascend One building, which was to remain leased for the next year or two as county courts move there to allow renovations at the main courthouse in Ellicott City.

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