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Bee ordinance axed at city council meeting

By Jefferson Weaver. The News Reporter

A misunderstanding and personnel changes led to a proposed bee ordinance that was struck down Tuesday by the Whiteville City Council.

“We thought we had to have a bee ordinance as part of the Bee City status,” said City Manager Darren Currie. “We thought we were doing the right thing. It seems like what we actually needed was a resolution of support.”

Whiteville was approached by the Columbus County Beekeepers Association last year about becoming a certified Bee City USA. Nationally, 62 municipalities have earned the title. City Council instructed staff to begin formulating plans with local beekeepers and public works to establish bee habitats around the city.

Honeybees are responsible for pollinating nearly every species of tree, bush, flower and vegetable. Declining populations in recent years have led beekeepers to encourage planting of beneficial flowers and other plants, both for domestic honey-producing bees and to bolster wild bee populations.

The proposed ordinance would have placed strict regulations on the placement of beehives in the city and extra-territorial jurisdiction, and forced many hobby and commercial apiaries to shut down operations.

City Planner Robert Lewis said the proposed regulation, which was endorsed by the planning board, was based on similar rules in place in other cities. There have been no complaints about bees or apiaries in the city, Lewis said. The previous planner, Hiram Marziano, was working on a bee ordinance when he left the city, Currie explained.

“We’ve been catching up on several things since then, and we thought this was something that was necessary for the Bee City designation.”

Ricky Boswell is the president of the Columbus Beekeepers and one of the original group to ask the council to approve the city’s application. He said the association was shocked to find out about the proposal, and said there is no requirement for the city to have an ordinance – especially one so restrictive.

“Just because an ordinance is suggested doesn’t mean it’s required,” he said. “I don’t foresee this going places if we have a rule that is this restrictive.”

Boswell noted that there have been no reports of situations involving stings from honeybees in the area, and safety is not a problem with honeybees or hives.

“We have hives at West Columbus, Southeastern Community College, and South Columbus High School,” he said. “We have good relationships there, and no problems…We don’t have a problem with bees in Columbus County.”

Boswell suggested the council “ignore the ordinance as presented until it looks like we really need to address a problem,” then “let us work together to find a solution.”

Master Beekeeper David Bridgers said the proposal – which would have allowed one hive within a 200-foot radius, plus a 75 feet buffer from neighboring property lines, among other rules – would prohibit most beekeepers from establishing a colony.

“Add the numbers together, and that’s 1.13 football fields,” he said. “The average property owner doesn’t have access to that much area. It would eliminate virtually all beekeepers in the city.”

Nancy Rupert, a hive inspector with the N.C. Department of Agriculture, said that if the city council and staff feels there is a real need for a bee regulation, “there are plenty to choose from in other towns.” Rupert, who is also a registered nurse and beekeeper,  said that the risks for stings are minimal, and North Carolina has no population of the more aggressive Africanized honeybees.

“Your local beekeeper is the first line of defense against Africanized bees,” she said.

She questioned whether the proposal was based in science or public safety concerns, and noted that in either case, “there are better rules to adapt to your city.” Pinehurst and Asheboro have excellent ordinances, she said, which are “much simpler.”

She also questioned why the city’s ordinance required written consent from neighboring property owners.

“Do you have similar rules for dogs?” she said. “Dogs are responsible for far more injuries every year than bees.”

John Kennedy told the board that he has a large hobby vineyard off Warrior Trail, and when production dropped, he tried different fertilizers, supplements and water testing to determine why. A specialist suggested making the area more bee-friendly, Kennedy said. Since then, he has spent around $300 on clover and other plants to attract more bees.

“Bees were virtually absent there for years,” he said. “When I began adapting my yard to feed the bees, things began looking up. I have been talking with a friend about putting a hive in my yard to help my grapes and other plants. The way this rule is written, I don’t know if I’ll be able to.

“I think you have a solution you’re trying to find a problem for,” Kennedy said.

Mayor Terry Mann said he felt there were some communication problems regarding the ordinance.

“I don’t think the intent was to bring it up in this manner,” he said, noting that there were no comments at the planning board meeting where the proposal was endorsed, but the public hearing at that meeting was properly advertised.

“When we’re dealing with a rezoning issue, we can send letters to the affected property owners,” Mann explained, “but in this case, we really couldn’t do that.”

He said that while he thought the proposal might be seen as restrictive, the city needed to try to plan ahead to avoid any future problems with bees.

“By the time a problem happens, it might be too late,” he said. “We need to avoid the problems to begin with if we can.

“I don’t think it was anyone’s intention to restrict beekeeping.”

Currie suggested the council refer the proposal back to the planning board and staff, who could then work with the beekeepers to find a solution. Councilman Jimmy Clarida made a motion to that effect, but the move died for a lack of second.

Councilman Tim Collier then proposed the council table the proposal.

“I don’t see that we need an ordinance,” he said, explaining that he has plans to establish a bee colony on his property in the city. “Can we do something later and catch up if we need to? I don’t know but I think we can. If at some point we need to put a rule into place, then we can do that. I don’t see a problem.”

Currie suggested the city council pass a resolution of support to bridge the gap between any Bee City guidelines and the need for regulation of apiaries.

 Collier then made a motion that the council take no action on the proposed regulation. Councilwoman Sara Thompson seconded the motion.

Collier and Thompson, along with councilmen Tim Blackmon and Justin Smith, voted to scrap the plan. Mayor Terry Mann, along with councilmen Clarida and Robert Leder,  voted against the motion.

Marcus Wendell Hill of Cerro Gordo, a member of the Beekeepers Association, said he was happy the way the issue was resolved.

 Hill said he does not raise bees for honey or for sale, but as a way to help the environment.

“I think this was a good example of the way local government is supposed to work,” he said. “The public expressed their opinion, and the council listened. I don’t think there was any ill intent –this just wasn’t well thought out. Bees are good for everybody.”

Stuart Rogers