In a spacious backyard neighboring the 44-acre Encinitas Community Park, bees come and go from two white, wooden boxes.
The beehives belong to homeowner Bruce Hall, who said the insects greatly improve the health of his plants and flowers. Not to mention, he has more honey than he knows what to do with.
Technically, though, his hobby is illegal.
City code states that hives are allowed in most residential areas, provided they’re at least 600 feet from surrounding homes. But Hall’s nearest neighbor is roughly 75 feet away.
The buffer is smaller for chicken coops or goat pens — 35 feet. Yet it’s still restrictive in Hall’s book.
“Having bees or raising animals isn’t realistic in Encinitas for most,” Hall said. “Yards are too small. Unfortunately, agriculture in this city is dying out.”
He’s among a chorus of residents calling for the city to overhaul decades-old agriculture rules in light of Encinitas’ increasingly urban environment. Relaxed city codes, they say, would sprout more recreational and commercial farms.
For now, Hall said most are forced to keep their livestock in hiding.
“You can hear chickens and goats in the area,” Hall said. “Bring them out of the shadows.”
Some cities are more lenient when it comes to residential agriculture. Take Carlsbad, where hives must be kept only 150 feet from homes.
In Encinitas and most cities in the county, ordinances addressing backyard livestock and agriculture date to the 1980s and even earlier. But less-strict laws have taken root recently.
In a nod to the “local food” movement, the city of San Diego relaxed rules for chickens, goats and bees in 2012. For instance, a coop housing up to 15 chickens is now allowed on lots if more than 15 feet away from homes, down from 50 feet.
Also, there’s less red tape to cut through when setting up a commercial farm.
That ordinance has made waves locally — the Encinitas council will decide whether to pursue rules similar to San Diego’s sometime next year.
In Encinitas, enforcement is reactive. That means code enforcement officers investigate livestock and bee violations only upon receiving a complaint from a resident.
And it doesn’t matter whether other neighbors like the bees or goats; all it takes is one upset person to trigger potential penalties.
If a code enforcement officer deems a complaint valid, a letter is sent asking the resident to get rid of the livestock. Those who ignore the letter can be fined $100, with repeat offenders facing a $200 fine and eventually a $500 fine.
Marianne Buscemi, senior code enforcement officer, said the city has issued a few warnings related to illegal livestock or bees in the past year, but no fines.
Most complaints stem from noisy animals or smelly droppings that have been on the ground for too long, she noted.
Deputy Mayor Tony Kranz is no stranger to limitations on backyard agriculture. He removed his bees after finding out there wasn’t enough distance between them and nearby homes.
Kranz, a proponent of an urban agriculture ordinance, said quite a few residents unwittingly break the rules or raise livestock in secret.
“Looking at an aerial map of Encinitas in the 1970s and 1980s compared to today, it’s sad,” Kranz said. “The city had agriculture everywhere; we have to fight for small farms today.”
Along with reducing buffers, Kranz said an ordinance makes it easier for small commercial farms to obtain permits.
“People with goat milk or another ware should have a means to sell it in the open,” Kranz said.
Eric Larson is the executive director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau. He said Encinitas’ agriculture-friendly image is at odds with a difficult permitting process.
Larson said in order for backyard farmers in Encinitas to sell their goods, they have to obtain a special minor-use permit that runs more than $1,600. And there’s a significant time commitment to do so.
“More is at stake than chickens and goats,” Larson said. “Even for those small operations growing vegetables and selling them, they need expensive permits. It’s onerous — the process could be streamlined.”
Laurel Mehl, owner of Coral Tree Farm and Nursery, knows firsthand about complex permitting.
Only four months ago, her neighborhood farm was bustling with activity. She sold her farm’s fruits and vegetables as part of a CSA (community supported agriculture) program, and kids there took part in educational classes.
The city, however, recently ordered her to stop.
Neighbors complained about the farm generating traffic (one of the neighbors did not respond to a request to comment). That led the city to examine the farm’s legal status.
Mehl’s family has been farming on the property since the 1950s, before homes in the neighborhood were built.
But when the city incorporated in 1986, commercial farms in residential neighborhoods were deemed “nonconforming.”
Nonconforming farms that cease commercial activity for 180 days — which the city alleges happened two decades ago — must apply for the minor-use permit.
“I had no idea this could be an issue,” Mehl said. “Here we are, doing well one day, and then we’re asked to close out of the blue.”
“We’ve enjoyed an outpouring of support for the farm, “she added. “Yet we’re still stuck.”
Mehl said she isn’t sure whether she’ll pursue the permit. In any case, she emphasized the city should do away with the 180-day stipulation in its updated ordinance and give farms stronger protections from nuisance complaints.
On the flip side, the city requires minor-use permits from commercial farms so they’re held to specific noise and traffic standards. Those living nearby then have extra assurances their area won’t be disturbed.
Which brings up the question, could more livestock and residential farming — commercial or otherwise — grow more neighborhood disputes?
Resident Al Rodbell believes community gardens and commercial agriculture shouldn’t be allowed to take root on just any vacant parcel.
“The encouragement of local gardens should be in the context of existing laws and zoning, rather than seeming to ignore those carefully crafted restrictions that allow residents to live in close proximity,” he said in a recent letter to the city.
“Residential zoning precludes commercial endeavors such as selling produce, and should not be overruled in this burst of enthusiasm.”
Bill Tall is the founder of City Farmers Nursery in San Diego and an advocate of the city’s 2012 ordinance, which eased zoning regulations.
He’s noticed a recent spike in backyard livestock as well as farm stands throughout San Diego, but not a corresponding increase in conflicts.
“You’re always going to have some issues,” Tall said. “I’ve heard of a few. Really, it’s been very positive. Families are getting outside and connecting with the land, learning how to slow down and enjoy life.”
City Farmers Nursery offers free classes in Backyard Farming 101, including raising chickens. As a testament to the growing popularity of urban agriculture, eight years ago, those lessons drew a couple of people; now they get around 50 attendees.
On that note, Tall said, education stressing cleanliness and readiness goes a long way toward preventing disputes.
“The hope is that you’re responsible, and if there happens to be a problem, your neighbor approaches you to address it before going to the city,” Tall said.
But are there enough people in Encinitas who support loosening agriculture rules to move the needle?
On at least one front, the issue is galvanizing reformers.
Resident James McDonald, owner of Encinitas Bee Company, said local beekeepers are advocating for revised laws, not only in Encinitas, but also elsewhere in the county.
“More beekeepers are getting together and making their voices heard,” McDonald said, noting they’re coordinating via social media.
He said beekeepers rallied together when the county Board of Supervisors considered easing bee regulations in unincorporated areas like Rancho Santa Fe last month.
They argue cutting the 600-foot requirement in Encinitas and the county would result in more domestic bees. In turn, additional domestic bees would dilute the African bee population, which is known for being aggressive and stinging in larger numbers.
And beekeepers say the insects are critical for pollinating crops.
“Organic growers need bees,” McDonald said. “If you want to promote organic, something needs to give, since bees aren’t allowed unless you own a significant chunk of land.”