June 29, 2011

Maine beekeeper:
Local ordinance stings

Local keepers bring a message to councilors in South Portland, where rules for the backyard hobby are 'putting up obstacles':

By Trevor Maxwell tmaxwell@mainetoday.com
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — The bees dart around Phil Gaven's arms and behind his neck, hundreds of them buzzing into the hives and then out toward the green meadow of tall grass and wildflowers.

click image to enlarge

Honeybees buzz around one of Phil Gaven's hives in South Portland on Tuesday. Gaven wants to repeal or revise a restrictive city ordinance governing beekeeping that some residents say goes too far. "Our whole concern is that this is an activity that should be encouraged," he said.

Photos by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Phil Gaven, standing near two of the four hives he keeps on a friend's property in South Portland on Tuesday, is fighting to change city ordinances that restrict the scope of beekeeping.

Additional Photos Below

He never flinches.

Gaven, a hobbyist beekeeper for the past three years, knows that the honeybees are far more interested in gathering water and pollen than they are in stinging him, unless he provokes them or threatens the two hives he erected on a friend's property near Willard Square.

"Hopefully they'll fill this within a couple of weeks," Gaven said, putting his hand on the top of one of the hives. The first honey harvest is running a few weeks late this year.

In 2008, as Gaven was getting deeply involved in beekeeping, South Portland became one of just a few communities in Maine to pass an ordinance governing it.

The decision by the City Council was prompted by a dispute between a beekeeper and his neighbors in the Cash Corner area.

There were simply too many hives on the small property owned by Omid Ghayebi, and without enough food and water to sustain them, the bees were hanging out in the neighbors' kiddie pool and on their lawn.

It was the first time in more than 20 years that South Portland's code enforcement officer had received a complaint about bees.

The 2008 ordinance contained several provisions, including a limit on the number of hives based on the size of the property.

Beekeepers must pay a $25 annual fee per location, and must ensure that their bees don't interfere with "the normal use or enjoyment of any property in the vicinity by humans or animals."

The ordinance authorizes the city to fine a beekeeper as much as $1,000 a day for a violation, although city officials have assured the public that fines would be levied only in extreme cases.

Now beekeeping has joined backyard chicken-raising as a popular hobby in Maine, and some South Portland residents say the city's ordinance goes too far.

Gaven is leading a push to repeal the bee ordinance, or at least make revisions that don't scare away would-be beekeepers. He says one main problem is that the ordinance contains technical rules for managing bee colonies.

While the intention was good, Gaven says, the rules sometimes contradict best practices, and could create nuisances where there weren't any.

"It's a case of a good idea that doesn't make a good law," he said.

Along with his wife and two other beekeepers, Gaven met with the City Council on Monday night.

Some of the councilors, including Mayor Rosemarie DeAngelis, agree with Gaven and favor a major revision to the ordinance. Others, like Maxine Beecher, are more leery.

Beecher said residents have legitimate concerns about bees, and it makes sense for the city to have sensible restrictions and enforcement authority to deal with irresponsible hobbyists.

The issue is expected to go to the council for further discussion, then possible action later this year.

City Manager Jim Gailey told the council that he wouldn't oppose lowering the fees and fines, but he thinks the ordinance should stay on the books.

"South Portland could be the densest community in the state," Gailey said, noting that about 23,000 people live within just 13 square miles.

DeAngelis said she will support major revisions.

"This is overworked and overdone and way too much," DeAngelis said. "The fee structures are absurd, the fines are ridiculous."

About 1,000 Mainers keep bees as a hobby or sideline business, as do about a dozen large-scale commercial beekeepers.

"Pretty much nationwide, there is about a 10 percent increase each year in the number of hobbyists," Gaven said. "Our whole concern is that this is an activity that should be encouraged. We shouldn't be putting up obstacles."

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Two of Phil Gaven's bees, being busy.


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