How I Lead: Julia McGuire on Making Room for Backyard Bees in the City
by Julia McGuire
I am a beekeeper in central Iowa. I coordinate my local beekeeping club, and have created a searchable Iowa bee law website. I really dedicated myself to bee keeping in late 2013 – early 2014. This year, I’ve added teaching beginning beekeeping courses to my resume.
I attended my first WFAN conference in 2014 in Fairfield, IA. Bridget Holcomb, newly appointed as WFAN’s executive director, highly recommended the Plate to Politics/VoteRunLead workshop at the conference to me, so I participated in it. I found it very affirming and influential for the path my life was taking.
The workshop facilitators asked us to identify issues we cared about and create a plan to advocate for them. At the top of my issues list, I wrote “urban bees.” The goal I set for the issue was “change zoning.” According to the plan I made, I would attain the goal in less than one year. Today, I can state with satisfaction that urban bees are now allowed for the first time under city zoning regulations in most residential areas of West Des Moines, IA – a community of more than 61,000. The change took a little more than a year, but passed just in time for new city beekeepers to begin their 2016 season!
Using the workshop strategies and applying insight from VRL webinars encouraged and helped me see the big picture in a clearer way than I could have without them. I can apply the advocacy strategies to almost anything, which is exactly what Bridget told me: “You should go [to the workshop] if you want to run for office. Or anything. Ever.” It was extremely valuable, and I continue to be a fan of VRL and consumer of its resources.
And I am extremely thankful to everyone who gave me support and ideas and connections along the way.
You can reach Julia at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Watch her podcast on urban beekeeping at this link.
Keep reading for more detail about the steps Julia took and the timeline she followed on my advocacy journey, which began in 2012.
Jan – June 2012
I met the city staff and council of WDM through other advocacy work I was doing in town. This was my first exposure to highly public activism – as in, I got hate mail. I made many connections and gradually understood the working relationships between citizens and local government branches. I also learned that I have a “squad” to back up my convictions, that communication is important – and that I’m good at communicating. I used whatever form of communication was required, while others simply wouldn’t use Facebook or refused to use the telephone. I believe that wherever the influential people are communicating, that is where I need to be. Biggest takeaway: directly ask the people in charge of the issue, and if I can’t figure out who that is, my councilman will tell me.
The city’s community garden space was an idea I took to city staff back in very early 2013, and they created the garden mid-winter 2013. My councilman encouraged me to contact the right people during my idea phase. (The garden had a waiting list within one week of a very soft opening that March.)
After beginning the beekeeping season in his urban backyard, a neighbor asked city staff multiple times about changing code to allow bees in the city over the summer. I originally didn’t want him approach the city for fear that his questions would lead to a stricter prohibition of bees. In October, I asked my councilman for his opinion on getting urban bees as a permitted use in residential areas. I learned that beeks (bee + geeks) talk amongst themselves annually about municipal code, but had never approached the council.
I met with Linda, a neighbor at the community garden, to talk about legalizing bees in the city. She introduced me via email to our new city manager. We both attend the WFAN conference in Fairfield, IA.
City staff educated me on the code amendment process (30 – 45 days is normal), and I introduced the city’s attorney and development staff to the idea of bees in the city
I was invited to attend a Development and Planning Subcommittee meeting. My neighbor was on the agenda. I gave him details from the advocacy planning I did at the VRL workshop. The state apiarist and I attended to support him, and while we are waiting our turn, I end up assigning topics and setting the order for us to speak. The use of effective storytelling was made clear to me during 2012 (and is emphasized in VRL webinars). After the meeting, I started reaching out to the West Des Moines bee-keeping community to let them know that changes affecting them might be coming in the days ahead. At this time, zoning code allowed beekeeping only in West Des Moines’ very few lots in the Open Space/Agriculture and Residential Estate (lots over 1A in size) zoning districts.
I found city staff very open to backyard bees! I wrote to my fellow beeks, “…staff … need to do three things: weed out negligent keepers, allay any fears that neighbors might bring up to the city, and protect beekeepers (and the City).” I asked the beekeeping community for support via letters to the Development and Planning Subcommittee (a combo of council and staff; I supplied a template) and/or to attend D and P or council meetings, where a public forum is always available at the start of the meeting.
Staff researched and wrote new urban beekeeping code and presented it to the D and P Subcommittee. They used a model ordinance from Louisiana. After the meeting, I proposed we substitute with a model from Minnesota that matches our Iowa climate better. This time period was our local “funnel week” – the deadline for approval of a new code to allow bees before the season started. We met again for Q and A. The subcommittee wanted a “public comment and education phase” to gauge citizen readiness. One councilman is absent from the meeting, and the other councilman is hesitant to greenlight the amendment by himself. We have seen this gentleman publicly change his stance from firmly anti-bee to acknowledging the need to give backyard beekeepers some sort of protection.
The city communications officer led a public comment and education phase. She pitched a story to the local paper, offering three pro-bee West Des Moines residents (including me) for potential interviews and photos. The newspaper ran the story within a week; no negative comments arrived.
I wrote in an email to my fellow beeks: “City Park and Rec and WDM Community Ed have asked about honey bees, classes, and urban bee hives this year. I am relying on staff to move the issue forward at the right time. The elect does not feel urgency to push the issue at the moment, and staff feels that timing needs to be perfect. Maybe we could look at election campaign time as a good time to increase [code amendment] efforts.”
I began research for www.beelaws.org. This website lists 97 Iowa cities and their bee laws. Almost all city staffs asked me to tell them how other cities regulate urban bee keeping.
Research for www.beelaws.org was finalized and the website was published, sponsored by the Iowa Honey Producers Association.
A city staffer contacted me: “Wanted to let you know that the Development and Planning Subcommittee members have asked us to again look at revisions to West Des Moines City Code to allow beekeeping in all residential districts. I am revising the Code now based on what we previously discussed, with a few minor tweaks.”
The amendment moved from the D and P Subcommittee to the Plan and Zoning Commission. Before the meeting, I assigned topics and order to speakers from the larger beekeeping community in my area. A representative from my district of the Iowa Honey Producers Association, and a fellow beek from a nearby town where bees are allowed in residential areas, spoke and showed photos to the commission. The proposed code amendment to allow urban bees was passed, unanimously and easily, and was submitted to the city council for final approval.
The amendment went before the council for the first of three public readings. Again, I coordinated the speakers. Fellow beeks from neighboring cities attended, as well as a couple of gardening folks, to show their support. No negative comments were received, and the language was approved with only one dissenting vote. Two more readings to go! If the amendment had been unanimously approved, the second and third readings would have been taken together on one date. Because it got one dissent, the second and third readings were held separately, two weeks apart (at regularly scheduled council meetings. Accounting for the uncertainty of a unanimous vote must be why staff told me that code changes take 30 – 45 days.) The local newspaper gave the proposed code some exposure, and again no negative comments were received at city hall or by city council. The second reading passed, two weeks afterward – again without negative public input.
The third and final reading was very uneventful, and the amendment was passed by the city council. It is now legal to have bees in most West Des Moines backyards! I heard from a few bee suppliers that this code change increased their sales at the last minute.