FREMONT — the City Council has sided with a backyard beekeeper in a decision that could make it harder for homeowners to prevent neighbors from raising bees.
In a 4-1 vote, council members overturned a police department ruling and approved a permit for Russel Shaffer to have two hives in his Centerville district backyard.
Shaffer, who kept the bees for five years without a permit, had to move his two hives to Sunol last year after his next-door neighbor was stung multiple times in one day and complained to police.
“I’m elated,” said Shaffer, who plans to bring back his 60,000 bees from Sunol.
But his next-door neighbor is not.
Diane Herbst said that Shaffer’s bees flew into her backyard so often that she wouldn’t allow her grandchildren to play there after both her husband, Steve, and dogs were stung. She also said her son-in-law is allergic to bees and couldn’t go in the backyard and that one of her dogs was so allergic to bee stings that they had to keep emergency sting medication for it.
“Would the council members want 60,000 bees so close to their fence?” she asked. “I realize that bees are necessary. But they don’t belong in the middle of a residential area.”
Fremont law requires police to determine that bees won’t be a problem for neighbors before issuing permits for bee hives, but council members determined there wasn’t clear-cut proof that Shaffer’s bees were a nuisance.
“If we are truly going to be this sustainable city that we keep talking about, we need to take actions to get there,” Councilwoman Anu Natarajan said.
Backyard beekeeping is on the rise nationwide as gardeners try to help sustain honeybee populations in North America and parts of Europe that have been declining during the past five years due to colony collapse disorder — the still unexplained phenomenon of worker bees disappearing from hives.
New York City last year legalized beekeeping, and first lady Michelle Obama in 2009 had a beehive installed outside the White House.
In San Francisco, where beekeepers are not allowed to keep hives if neighbors complain, the beekeeper population has more than quadrupled during the past decade, San Francisco Beekeepers’ Association President Lawrence Mortensen said. the group itself has grown from a little more than 40 members eight years ago to 188 today.
In Fremont, authorities have issued fewer than 10 permits for beekeeping, wrote Sgt. Howard Russell, who runs the city’s animal services division. However, there are likely more beekeepers who are operating without a city permit.
Fremont typically grants about 75 percent of the permits sought for chickens, ducks, rabbits, geese and bees, Russell wrote, and most of the rejections are because of opposition from neighbors. Fremont law allows two beehives on lots larger than 8,000 square feet but specifies that keeping bees can’t “endanger the peace health or safety of persons in the immediate vicinity.”
Given the Herbsts’ written testimony, it appears the council is setting a high threshold to prove that backyard bees are a nuisance, but Councilmember Bill Harrison said the ruling last Tuesday shouldn’t be seen as a precedent setter.
“I think you have to look at the facts and circumstances of every case,” he said. “Just because one person complains, I don’t think that takes away another person’s rights.”
The council majority, with only Mayor Bob Wasserman dissenting, noted that there was no direct evidence that it was one of Shaffer’s bees that stung the Herbsts; that Shaffer’s other neighbors supported his beekeeping; and that Shaffer’s permit would only be for one year, giving council members a chance to review the permit if there are more complaints.
Shaffer, a retired handyman who has taught beekeeping to Irvington High School students, during the City Council meeting talked about the importance of beekeeping to improve gardens and sustain bee populations.
Meanwhile, the Herbsts — acting, they said, on the recommendation of police — declined to address the council.
“If she had gone up there and told us her side, things might have been different,” Harrison said.
Herbst said she regretted not stating her case and will be more closely documenting Shaffer’s bees when they return.
The council ruling won’t change the city’s policies for granting beekeeping permits, but officers will be more diligent about collecting evidence and medical reports for animal-related nuisance cases, Russell wrote. “I will begin instructing field staff to treat these cases as if we were investigating a criminal matter.”
Contact Matthew Artz at 510-353-7002.
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