Before they might open up selected Eau Claire parks to beekeepers, City Council members want more details as they grapple with how that could affect residents who are allergic to the insects’ stings.
The council discussed potential changes Monday night to its ordinance that allows beekeeping, which are expected to come back for a vote later this month after undergoing some revision.
“Overall I like the direction this is going,” Councilman Jeremy Gragert said.
The changes would ease requirements for people seeking a license to have beehives in their backyards for personal use, while also allowing beekeeping in parts of six city-owned public spaces.
While overall supportive, Gragert, like several of his colleagues, said he wanted public space requirements fleshed out more before the ordinance returns for consideration in two weeks.
Beekeepers would be required to set up barriers around hives in parks, which would be locked but accessible to them and city workers. Exactly what form those barriers are — a fine mesh or wooden fencing, for example — is not yet specified.
Councilman Terry Weld wanted the ordinance to include details about those enclosures before he’s ready to vote on it.
Councilwoman Kate Beaton is enthusiastic about expanding beekeeping to parks, especially those already used by community members for gardening.
“I think that beekeeping could be a new form of urban gardening,” she said.
However, she agreed with Weld that details about fencing or other barriers for hives in parks need to be specified.
Changes to the beekeeping ordinance were brought forward by acting council President Andrew Werthmann in October. After debate during a meeting, the council opted to delay a decision to allow further study into those changes in January.
While other Wisconsin cities do allow backyard beekeeping, city staff said Eau Claire would be an exception if the hobby is approved for parks.
“We would be the first to allow public space beekeeping,” assistant city attorney Jenessa Stromberger said.
Six city-owned public spaces — Archery, Demmler and Fairfax parks, the Forest Street greenway, Jeffers Road Green Waste Site and property donated by the Keyes property south of Eau Claire — would be added as places for beekeeping under the proposed changes.
City staffers noted they had some concerns with expanding the beekeeping law to public parks because of having high number of bees around people who may be allergic to them.
“Our objection initially was because of the safety,” said Jeff Pippenger, director of community services. “Not everybody carries their EpiPen with them.”
But he noted his department would have discretion in approving hives and their locations within the parks.
Councilman David Strobel said he supported the first beekeeping ordinance because it sounded like a hobby for residents, but noted the changes would allow a person to have up to 49 hives in the city.
“At what point does it become a business?” he said.
Demmler and Archery parks would each be limited to eight bee colonies because of their smaller acreage. But both Fairfax Park and the Keyes property are large enough to allow the maximum of 49 hives.
“I think if we’re going to get into the public space, I’d like to keep it to the hobby level,” Strobel said.
Werthmann’s proposal also would ease requirements on beekeepers for getting a permit to keep hives in their backyards.
Currently the city requires consent form signed by at least 80 percent of neighbors within 100 feet of beekeeper’s land. The proposed changes would still notify people within 100 feet, but only those within 50 feet could submit a written objection within two weeks of a neighbor applying for a beekeeping license. Those objections would then be heard by the City Council, which would decide if the license should still be granted.
Eau Claire’s written consent requirement is the most stringent for backyard beekeeping permit requirements in the state, and most cities use a notice and objection process instead, said Matt Steinbach, environmental sciences division manger at the Eau Claire City-County Health Department.
Eau Claire first allowed beekeeping in Febraury 2015, but less than five people apply annually for a permit in the city, Steinbach said.
“We have not had a large interest in beekeeping in the city at this point,” he said.