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Couple's Hivekeeping Habit Likely to Influence Change

City zoning codes are at the heart of a recent controversy involving urban beekeeping in Port Washington.

One of the larger topics of discussion on Patch has been the local couple who have welcomed in .

Weighing very importantly into the story has been the question of legality. Can this couple, who said they had permission from the city administrator, have 75,000 bees outside of their residence? Answering that question will likely come down to language within the city's zoning laws.

In plain terms, zoning laws are a way for municipalities to direct and organize development within their borders. These laws help to preserve the value of properties, keep land uses that are consistent with each other together and keep inconsistent land uses apart.

For example, certain businesses have a tendency to make a great deal of noise, give off strong odors or employ tremendous amounts of outdoor lighting. Others tend to bring in a great deal of traffic and people. These businesses are not always compatible — especially businesses putting significant amounts of people into an area with loud noises and strong odors. Without zoning laws, each business has the right to use its land for any purpose it chooses, and the neighboring homeowners or businesses only remedy exists through lawsuits and nuisance actions. As a local example, we saw the petition floated around about a this summer.

With zoning laws, these conflicts, and thereby nuisance actions, become less common. Charter Steel probably wouldn't be the best neighbor for residents to have next door, however, it would not interfere greatly with other small industries. The two industries, as neighbors, likely would not sue each other for noise or smells, because the noises or smells do not usually impact each others' work.

brings hundreds of cars through a neighborhood on a daily basis — which is bad for residents trying to use the same streets, but great for a gas station or other business. The residents might have a nuisance action against Walmart, but the other businesses would probably thrive near Walmart and be very happy to locate nearby.

An added benefit of zoning laws is that the city can plan and allocate resources in a more efficient and localized area. When uses are divided out, the city can accurately predict how roads and other city-provided benefits will be used.

The city has less incentive to widen light residential roads because the traffic is minimal. Similarly, the city can more efficiently place a school in a residential neighborhood, keeping it near those areas where students are likely to live. Alternately, a city can install wider turn lanes where it knows it will have more truck traffic. The city can install different water mains, plan for fire and ambulance response staffing and police patrols — all based on the expected uses of different areas of the city. The separation provided by zoning benefits a city by helping the city to efficiently use its resources.

Each city draws up its own zoning code under the city plan commission. The plan commission draws up different district categories and classifies their permitted uses. Each district, or category of district, is given specific rules by the city plan commission — distances the houses must be back from a property line, number of stories allowed in a building, the size of lots, etc.

These districts are also given specific permitted uses. The rules and uses apply uniformly to the entire district. A less-restrictive district will generally allow for uses from more-restrictive districts, but not the other way around. If, for example, the city wants to keep my district a quiet, residential neighborhood — it can limit the uses of my neighborhood to residential purposes. It can establish that houses shall be no more than two stories, must be one hundred feet away from any lot line, and can only occupy five percent of the size of my lot. Further, it can classify this in such a way that the only permitted uses are single-family, residential uses. The result is a district where all buildings are small homes, with large yards, and relatively few people. No Walmarts, no Charter Steels.

In Port Washington, the city plan commission has divided its zoning uses according to various categories. These range from Single Family Detached Residences, to Office Space and Special Service, to Agricultural District, to Industrial Park. The city has twenty-eight different zoning district categories, each with its own rules, regulations and permitted uses — eleven of these are for purely residential uses.

The city has established limits on what can be done in a residential zone in all of its districts. At the most restrictive, these limits effectively allow the following as uses by right:

  • Dwellings;
  • Public parks and recreation areas, (excluding facilities for organized sports);
  • Public utility accessories.

Of course, we all use our homes for more than just sleeping or “dwelling.” We frequently cook out, some of us garden, some of us have home offices. These activities are generically included as accessory uses under the code, which permits the following:

  • Private garages, carports and paved parking areas, when located on the same lot and not involving the conduct of a business, except a permitted home occupation or conditional use;
  • Quarters for full-time household employees and their families;
  • Guest houses; 
  • Specific signs;
  • Home offices (within specific limits); 
  • Home gardening and horticulture not involving commercial facilities for garden produce, trees, shrubs, plants or cut flowers and not permitting greenhouses in excess of 500 square feet; 
  • Private residential outdoor recreational facilities;
  • Service facilities;
  • Or any other structure or use normally accessory to the principal use permitted.

In addition, each zone allows for some “conditional grant” uses. These conditional uses are basically exceptions allowed by the city on a case-by-case basis after an application procedure and hearing. Some activities are associated with residential uses but generate more traffic or otherwise impact neighbors in a way that residences would not. A good example is a church.

Churches are sensibly placed near residences and people generally do not object to living near them. However, churches bring in extra traffic and impact the neighborhood in ways that a business might. One solution is to have the church apply for permission — a conditional grant — and allow the church to show that its impact in the neighborhood would not drastically alter the intent of the zoning scheme — perhaps by drawing thousands of cars into the neighborhood on a weekend. For that reason, churches are listed as conditional uses in Port Washington's most restrictive residential zones.

From time to time, issues come up where language intended to be all-inclusive does not cleanly fit into a given situation. The city could easily list out specific uses to the letter. In fact, the town of Saukville has a very detailed zoning code with few generalizations. However, most cities of any size try to keep things generalized enough to include most situations.

The language is meant to be all-inclusive. Unfortunately, the bee issue appears to be one of those situations where all-inclusive language becomes unclear.

Without going into the specific facts of the couple battling the city in their bee situation, the fight itself is over whether allowing a beehive into a residential neighborhood is a permitted use under the zoning code. In order to comply with the law, the couple will have to show that bees fall under one of the acceptable uses — likely as either the home office or horticulture provisions under the ordinance. The fight will probably come down to definitions and technicalities — whether honey constitutes “garden produce,” whether the couple was selling honey or renting their bees out or whether the beehive met any of the established setbacks or other rules within the area.

It's a debate that will likely change the language of Port Washington's zoning laws in the future.

Nathan Flynn November 03, 2011 at 07:49 PM
Where does the Port Garden Club and their walks fall under the code? The ycharge $5 dollars to visit area residents' gardens. These residents in turn sell them bulbs and plants. Seems a violation of commercial agricultural purposes. Additionally, there is the nuisance issue. Dozens of old ladies attempting to cross Grand Ave back and forth. Port Washington residents aren't known for being the kind to stop for pedestrians unless there's the threat of a ticket. Why is the Garden Club allowed to swing this collective fist beyond my jaw?
Sam Vedder November 03, 2011 at 11:34 PM
@Nathan... you really seem to have a problem with the Garden Club. If you really have a problem with their activities, bring your complaint to city hall and they will show you that you have nothing to worry about and they are not violating any ordinances. Crying about it on every blog you can find will do, just short, of nothing for you.

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