In the beginning, it seemed like a simple problem.
This past September, longtime Pinehurst Lane resident Hollie Stockman notified Signal Mountain officials that a bee hive had been set up not far from her daughter’s school bus stop.
“We are not asking that (the owner) remove the bee hive, only that she move it to her back yard away from the bus stop,” Mrs. Stockman explained.
Soon afterwards, the town sent out an employee to investigate.
Sure enough, there was a bee hive in Michelle Michaud’s front yard.
Its presence came as no major surprise. Beekeeping is becoming increasingly popular in the mountaintop community, as it is across Tennessee and the rest of the nation; state records indicate Signal Mountain now boasts a total of 19 registered apiaries which, together, are home to 49 bee colonies.
But the location Ms. Michaud had chosen violated a town ordinance that prohibits residents from housing animals of any type in their front yards, so on Oct. 2 Police Chief Boyd Veal notified her that the hive had to be moved.
“If this matter involved a dog house, kennel or such, we would require that it be moved immediately,” the police chief wrote. “We will allow 14 days for you to remove the hives from the front yard.”
Today, more than three months later, the bee hive remains right where it was. Rather than comply with the order, Ms. Michaud filed an appeal and the battle was on.
As Mrs. Stockman and town officials have learned over the past few months, Tennessee lawmakers – at least passively – have sided with beekeepers in disputes such as the current one on Signal.
In fact, legislators have designated the docile, hugely valuable honey bee as the state agricultural animal.
A largely rural state, Tennessee sets no limits regarding the placement of beehives near areas where people gather, such as school bus stops. Further, it protects apiarists from liability in the event their bees sting somebody.
Under TCA 44-15-125, individuals who register their hives with the state agriculture department – as Ms. Michaud has done – and are in compliance with that agency’s requirements “shall not be liable for any personal injury or property damage that is caused by the keeping and maintaining of (bees).”
There are efforts underway to find ways for beekeepers to manage their hives so neighbors will be less likely to complain about them, according to Tom Womack, director of public affairs for the Tennessee Department of Agriculture.
“(T)he state apiarist is working with an advisory group of bee experts and beekeepers to develop recommended best management practices that beekeepers can follow to ensure colony health and to reduce nuisance complaints from neighbors,” he explained this week.
However, he noted, there are no plans to require beekeepers to follow the guidelines – and no penalties for those who do not.
“The voluntary guidelines will address placement of beehives and barrier recommendations,” he wrote. “The guidelines have not been finalized and are subject to further review and refinement, and we hope to have the guidelines available and distributed to registered beekeepers by mid-year. These will be recommended, voluntary practices that beekeepers would agree to, but not subject to enforcement.”
That’s a good beginning, some Signal Mountain Council members say, but it doesn’t go far enough.
They’d like to see Signal incorporate the state’s pending best practice guidelines into its existing ordinances – and make them mandatory, not voluntary, for beekeepers inside town limits.
Hopefully, that can be done sometime this spring, council members said.
“Because the guidelines the state has drafted are very much in line with requirements other cities around the country have implemented, I would be quite comfortable adopting them before the state completes its review,” Councilwoman Annette Allen explained.
“Based on these proposed guidelines, because Ms. Michaud’s beehives are within 50 feet of the property line, she would need to install a barrier of hedges, shrubs or fencing six feet high. This would direct the (bees’) flight pathway above head height,” she explained.
Council members have asked town manager Honna Rogers to research the proposed best practices document the state is now working on, and to provide them with a draft ordinance for review at our their work session, according to Mayor Bill Lusk.
In order to address all council members’ concerns, that draft ordinance probably will have to be amended, he added, so “the earliest that a modified ordinance could be considered on first reading would then be at our February meeting and a second reading at our March meeting.
Signal officials are far from alone in their battle to find common-sense resolutions to conflicts over bee hives. Across the nation, as concern about the widespread destruction of natural honey bee habitats and interest in beekeeping have burgeoned, numerous communities have found themselves struggling to balance the interests of urban farmers with those of concerned neighbors.
* In New York City a few years ago, the health department levied a $2,000 fine against a woman who kept two bee hives under a pine tree in her front yard after receiving an anonymous complaint.
* In Maryland, an elderly man’s concern that the honey bees next door were endangering his grandchildren resulted in a zoning battle and 18 months of public hearings swarmed by hundreds of indignant beekeeping enthusiasts.
* And right here in Tennessee, in Nashville, plenty of eyebrows shot up when Kevin Gunter installed bee hives on the quarter-acre suburban lot where he and his family – in their quest for a sustainable lifestyle – raise crops that need honey bees to pollinate them.
Gradually however, in many areas, efforts by beekeepers to be “good neighbors” are succeeding in easing public health and safety concerns. Mr. Gunter’s hives in Nashville, for example, sit behind a five-foot-tall privacy fence that forces his bees to fly up and out, rather than directly into nearby streets and yards.
Even in Signal, that principle holds true. The ongoing Michaud-Stockman dispute is an anomaly, according to officials; nobody has ever complained about any of the other families in the town who keep bees – some of them in their front yards.
On Pinehurst Lane, however, feelings still run high.
Ms. Michaud – who notified the town in December that several Signal Mountain bee colonies, including hers, had died – is nevertheless continuing her battle.
She has repeatedly contacted officials defending beekeeping, urging them to amend the ordinance which bans bee hives in front yards, and decrying “the kind of people we are dealing with.”
“Now they are (also) bullying you two,” she and her husband said in an Oct. 25 email to Chief Veal and Town Manager Rogers. “We are so very sorry this is now happening to you both. We know you have better things to do. Heck, we have better things to do. But we will not let them bully our family any more.”
Mrs. Stockman is equally upset, and just as determined.
“I don't think anyone in their right mind would place a hive near a bus stop like Michaud has done,” she wrote in an indignant email to the town manager. “I don't understand why bees take precedence over children. You have a son. Would you want him passing a bee hive everyday, twice a day, and stand near that bee hive twice a day when the bee hive doesn't have to be there??? . . . Seriously, this is ridiculous!”