Portland Urban Beekeepers push for new regulations

Group says requirements are too strict and lead to discrimination in enforcement

Beekeeper Latisha Strickland has 240,000 honeybees at her Portland home (July 4, 2013, KOIN 6 News)

PORTLAND, Ore. (The Tribune) — “Bees are the new chickens.”

So says Brian Duval, whose husband Michael Carlson manages six hives in the backyard of their Alberta neighborhood home.

“It’s grown just crazily,” Carlson agrees, adding that membership in the fledgling Portland Urban Beekeepers chapter of Oregon State Beekeepers Association, has grown from about a dozen people to around 175 people in three years, with close to 1,000 likes on their Facebook page.

But with so many new beekeepers now talking to each other, issues with how the city and county regulate bee hives have come to the surface. The requirements, they say, are too strict and lead to discrimination in its enforcement. An advisory committee meeting will meet Tuesday, Sept. 16, to review proposed changes to Portland beekeeping regulations with an aim of changing them by Oct. 1.

Carlson says he was involved in beekeeping for about two years before he learned he needed to get a permit. Then he found out that permits require signatures from 100 percent of his neighbors within 150 feet of his property line: about 25 households.

“It was kind of bizarre,” he says.

It also proved to be impossible. Last week, Carlson sent in an application that he had worked on for more than a year — waiting for houses to be built, figuring out owners of rental properties, etc. — with two missing signatures.

He believes those neighbors will never sign because he is gay.

“It’s just a really difficult thing walking around and trying to get your neighbors to agree to something like this,” Carlson says, adding that he is hoping to receive a variance from the county. “There’s no other permitting process that is anything like this in the city.”

Tim Wessels, president of Portland Urban Beekeepers, says Carlson’s is not an uncommon story. He’s heard several other cases of prejudiced or mentally ill neighbors holding up petitions and single-handedly blocking backyard beekeeping.

“We would like to see beekeepers get permits and right now there’s no incentive,” Wessels says. “In fact, there is a disincentive to get permits.”

He estimates that out of nearly 200 PUB beekeepers only about 10 percent have permits.

Big changes to regulations

Vector Control Manager Chris Wirth is the man in charge of specialized animal permits at Multnomah County, which includes bees.

The past year has brought a watershed moment for change, Wirth says. From new leadership in Portland, on the Multnomah County Commission and a new Health Department Director, the time to take a comprehensive look at bee issues has come.

Wirth says his office has even received three applications from restaurants and hotels who want to keep bees on their rooftops to serve hyper-local honey.

“And that’s a new thing that’s happened this year,” he says.

Since 1968, Multnomah County has enforced and managed Title 13 Animals of Portland’s city code.

“It’s really a bare-bones code,” Wirth says, explaining that the county had to come up with regulations and procedures for enforcement of Portland’s desire for a permitting process for livestock and bees. Title 13 allows the county broad freedoms to create any forms or procedures deemed necessary.

The requirement to get signatures, Wirth says, came out of a desire to get neighbors talking to each other and head off complaints to the county before they happened.

“We’re looking at something that will eliminate that component,” Wirth says. “They’ll still need to engage with their neighbors at some point, but it will be on their responsibility to do that.”

The city of Portland’s Steve Cohen, manager of food policy and programs at the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, says this will likely be in the form of an affidavit from beekeepers swearing that they mailed letters to their neighbors.

Cohen also notes that this issue for permitting came up two years ago under a larger review of Portland’s codes for farmers markets and home food production. He says that at that time, the county didn’t take action.

“My understanding is it didn’t move forward because there was a conversation between the county and the city about who would pay for these things,” Cohen says.

Just this fiscal year, beginning July 1, the city started paying the county $60,000 annually for its work on Title 13.

Dana Haynes, spokesman for Mayor Charlie Hales, explains that the payment was part of a larger effort to clarify exactly who does what between the county and the city.

“Over the period of about 40 years, that line became very, very blurred,” Haynes says.

Beekeeper discrimination lawsuit

Portland resident Austin Bennington says he and others he’s talked to feel like criminals for wanting to keep bees. Bennington has had to move his hives to Gresham.

“I can start a strip club or a bar, or anything like that and my neighbor doesn’t have to give permission,” Bennington says. “I could just send a letter and comply with city of Portland code, but with Multnomah County I have to get everyone’s permission.”

Bennington also claims to have been harassed by weekly visits from county employees and blames Wirth for granting variances subjectively.

“They’re basically acting without any powers,” Bennington says.

He adds that if the equity issues are not resolved to his satisfaction, he and a homosexual couple plan to sue the city. They’ve already received donations equal to about half the anticipated legal work.

“With all the issues facing bees and beekeepers in the past 20 years, we really don’t need local government being a hindrance to that.”

Current statistics

From Jan. 1 to Sept. 1 of this year, Multnomah County has issued 16 permits for beehives and 13 of those received variances, according to statistics provided by Vector Control. Three of the variances were for rooftop hives at restaurants and hotels and the remaining 10 did not submit the required 100 percent of signatures.

However, Vector Control Manager Chris Wirth says nearly all of those 10 would have met the signature requirement under ArcGIS software rather than PortlandMaps.com.

“What this means is that nearly all of the permits where the County had granted a variance didn’t actually need a variance as the Portlandmaps.com software overestimated distance,” Wirth says. “This is another change the County is looking at enacting ArcGIS instead of Portlandmaps.com.”

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