Gosia Wozniacka, AP
In this July 1, 2014 photo, Beekeeper Austin Bennington poses for a photo in his backyard, where he once kept bees but was told to stop, in Portland, Ore. Bennington is part of a group of beekeepers who want the city to ditch a requirement that forces backyard beekeepers to get permission from neighbors within 150 feet of the property line in order to keep bees.
PORTLAND, Ore. — In Portland, a good beekeeper needs good neighbors — lots of them.
Those who enforce city rules require aspiring beekeepers to get a permit as well as the written permission of every resident and property owner within 150 feet of the property line. Code enforcers say the regulation is good for public health, but beekeepers contend it can sometimes be an impossible hurdle to overcome and they want it removed.
"If just one of them denies me permission, I can't have bees on my property," said Austin Bennington, who has 23 houses within 150 feet of his property and was forced to move honeybees from his half-acre backyard to a spot outside city limits.
The popularity of urban beekeeping has increased in recent years, with the White House getting its first hive and cities such as New York overturning bans. Moreover, scores of news stories about mysterious bee die-offs have highlighted the importance of pollinators.
It's unknown how many backyard beekeepers exist in Portland, a city where urban agriculture is revered. Only 85 people have permits, but others could be operating outside the law.
The city code requires beekeepers to get a permit, and that includes notifying all nearby residents. Enforcement, however, is handled by Multnomah County, which is behind the added requirement of getting signed consent.
County spokeswoman Julie Sullivan-Springhetti wrote in an email that the signature requirement was adopted in 2008 because of a "necessary and growing need."
A county manager, in a May note to Bennington, cited public health concerns involving bees, including severe allergies, anaphylaxis, and potential fatalities. He said the county uses the signature requirement because it must see evidence neighbors were notified.
"The county's intention is for a bee permit applicant to inform neighbors, create a record of showing proof of the applicant's interaction with neighbors, and open a channel of communication between the county and the neighbors with concerns," wrote Christopher Wirth, manager of vector-borne disease surveillance and control and code enforcement.
Beekeepers counter that only a tiny percentage of the population is allergic to bee stings, and honeybees are not as aggressive as wasps and yellow jackets. Bee enthusiast Lois Leveen said the requirement itself instills fear, "by having it sound like this is so dangerous your neighbors need to sign for it."
Bee regulations vary across the United States, and it appears most places don't mandate neighborhood approval. But Portland is not the only city with such a rule. Minneapolis, for example, requires written consent from adjacent homeowners as well as 80 percent of neighbors within 100 feet of the property.
Portland keepers say the rule is unfair because two equally responsible people might have different experiences. One keeper might have easygoing neighbors, while the other might live near someone who doesn't want to sign any piece of paper or has a grudge unrelated to bees. Foreclosed houses present another barrier.
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Michael Carlson said he started keeping bees before he knew a permit was necessary. He's trying to get legal and has so far collected about 60 percent of the signatures. One woman, he said, claims she'll talk to her husband about it and then never commits to signing the form.
"It's very uncomfortable to do this whole thing, and there's nothing else in the city I know of like this," Carlson said. "I mean, you can build a house without having to get approval from the neighbors. You can get a liquor license. You can have a strip club in your neighborhood. It's only bees."
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