Winter 2009-2010

By John Koster

Many people don’t know that they’ve ever seen Allendale, New Jersey, but the borough turns up all the time as a backdrop to movies and television shows because Allendale embodies an eastern suburb that’s tastefully affluent without being unduly ostentatious. “Morning Glory,” a Paramount Pictures feature film starring Harrison Ford, Diane Keaton, Jeff Goldblum and Rachel McAdams, is currently under production there, and Allendale was featured regularly in episodes of the NBC-TV comedy “Ed” and several Hollywood films. More ominously, when a World War II aviator’s buddies were sending home his personal effects in “Memphis Belle,” the wooden box was addressed to “Allendale, N.J.” – a comment on the town’s media profile.

Allendale, however, was until recently off limits to aviators with six legs: The borough was one of only two municipalities in northern New Jersey’s Bergen County that banned bees. This is incongruous because Allendale’s borough council and many prominent citizens are strongly committed to environmentalism: Allendale boasts the Celery Farm, a 104-acre wildlife sanctuary of wetlands and woodlands that is home to more than 240 species of birds, including wild turkeys and red-backed hawks, and – less fortunately – coyotes, which sometimes eat the other animals. The bee ban wasn’t taken seriously until Allendale resident Dianne DiBlasi asked to relocate some hives from a neighboring town and was told that Allendale has a ban on bees.

The ban came about some 40 years before, prompted by two separate problems in the days when Allendale still contained a few working farms and was more rural than it is today. Caught up in the youth culture of the 1960s and 1970s, a likable young man whose family owned an important local business and a sizable piece of land set up a goat farm in the middle of the borough. Tousled and tee-shirted, he lived in a ramshackle, homemade cabin in the middle of the land next to the Franklin Turnpike, the borough’s main thoroughfare, surrounded by two horses, a flock of chickens, a rhesus monkey and a herd of goats.

Meanwhile, in another part of the same borough, a reclusive man known as “The Cobra King” used his garage to breed and feed cobras that he milked for venom to sell to laboratories on a commercial basis – an activity that terrified many of his neighbors but wasn’t covered by zoning regulations. Pressured by the municipal officials, the Cobra King relocated his cobra collection elsewhere, and the goat farmer subsequently put on a suit and took over the family business. Municipal officials, reluctant to undermine property values sustained by excellent schools, drafted an ordinance that defined just which animals were allowed in Allendale:

93-22. Prohibited animals. It shall be unlawful for any person to keep, maintain, have in his or her possession or under his or her control or to permit another to keep, maintain, or have under his control within the borough limits of the Borough of Allendale any cattle, chickens, bees, goats, guinea hens, hogs, horses, ocelots, pigs (including potbelly pigs), pigeons, sheep, swine, or any other animal that is deemed to be dangerous to humans ….”

The ordinance provided for a fine of up to $1,000 or imprisonment for 90 days for violation, but the thrust was that the animal control officer or any police officer had the authority to tell people they couldn’t keep cobras, goats – or bees.

When DiBlasi asked for permission to keep bees in Allendale, she encountered this ordinance, but she also had some local support: Many people in Allendale were environmentally aware and understood that the decline in the honeybee population threatened the environment in general and agriculture in particular. The area around Allendale is still dotted with fruit orchards, and many residents have extensive gardens. Bees had some supporters, and some opponents among residents who had allergies to bee stings.

Jim Strauch
Jim Strauch, a council member in Allendale, N.J., drafted an ordinance to enable beekeeping in the borough, despite his bee allergy. Photo by John Koster.

One council member who split the difference was Jim Strauch, an environmental window installer who is allergic to bees and wasps but is also an avid environmentalist. Strauch, already an assistant marsh warden at the Celery Farm, had initially run for borough council on a write-in campaign to save as many trees as possible from being cut down to make way for sports fields. He lost the write-in campaign but garnered more than 1,000 votes in a town with a population of about 4,000, and was elected easily as an endorsed Republican the following year.

“We don’t want to be human beings pollinating the plants,” Strauch said. “We want to let Nature do the job.”

Splitting the difference between the need for bees and the fear that some residents with allergies had of bees, Strauch drafted a proposed revision of the regulation that would allow DeBlasi and other residents who wanted them to keep bees – if neighbors didn’t object. He suggested that if even one neighbor objected, the bees were still banned.

Specifically, Strauch’s tentative draft of the bee zoning ordinance provided that:

The beekeeper must register with the New Jersey state apiarist – who would provide free inspection services.

The Allendale authorities would issue a license for beekeeping good for one year, bearing the name of the licensed beekeeper and expiring at the end of the year.

The zoning officer would need to determine property setbacks, and all hives would have to be located at least 25 feet from property lines.

The mayor and council would supervise the requirements that a minimum of a quarter acre would allow for one colony. More than a quarter acre but less than a half acre would permit two colonies. More than a half acre but less than a full acre would allow four colonies, and an acre or more would allow a maximum of six colonies.

All residents within 200 feet would be notified.

The hive must be protected by an appropriate fence, at least 6 feet in height, with the gate being locked at all times to keep the beehive from being disturbed. The Allendale building department would approve the right to build the fence.

The beekeeper would establish that the state apiarist would come to inspect the hive or hives on a regular basis or as necessary. (The New Jersey State Department of Agriculture, anxious to encourage honeybees, already provides free inspection on request.)

Local officials would check regularly to make sure that the bees had an adequate water supply. (Finding bees in swimming pools was seen as a potential annoyance and possibly as a threat if the pool owners had allergies.)

Any violations would lead to an inspection by Allendale officials and possible removal of the bees.

Honeybees would be kept for noncommercial purposes only.

There would be a limit of four actively participating beekeepers in Allendale at any given time.

“I don’t believe that applications for active beekeeping in Allendale are going to go much beyond that,” Strauch said dryly. DiBlasi was the first person to broach the subject since bees turned up on the “dangerous animal” list in the 1980s.

When the ordinance was introduced in September, councilmen and councilwomen unanimously approved of it; in October they voted to adopt it.

Construction Code Official John Wittekind was told after the meeting that he would probably wind up enforcing beehive regulations.

“I heard the buzz was that I was going to get stung,” he said philosophically.

Ed. note: According to Maine state apiarist Tony Jadczak, Westbrook and South Portland have ordinances that address keeping bees, but only Lewiston prohibits beekeeping in city limits.

About the author: John Koster is the author of the new non-fiction book Custer Survivor and regularly writes for Wild West magazine. Shizuko Obo and Minjae Kim assisted on research for this story.

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