Wednesday, July 24, 2024


Supporters of four rooftop beehives at  Cambridgeport’s Congregation Eitz Chayim wore “Give Bees a Chance” stickers to a Thursday hearing with the Zoning Board of Appeals. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Supporters of four rooftop beehives at Cambridgeport’s Congregation Eitz Chayim wore “Give Bees a Chance” stickers to a Thursday hearing with the Zoning Board of Appeals. (Photo: Marc Levy)

A Cambridgeport synagogue has until Jan. 8 to make peace with neighbors who suffered bee stings and swarms from four rooftop hives last summer.

At a Zoning Board of Appeals hearing Thursday, chairman Constantine Alexander urged Congregation Eitz Chayim and neighbors repeatedly to get together for informal talks before the board had to set down a permanent decision.

“The bees have gone to sleep for the winter, they’re all safe in their hives staying warm and we’re not going to see any bees out for months and months to come, and that should give us plenty of time to see if it’s a good idea,” said Rabbi Liza Stern, agreeing with the idea of meeting with neighbors for talks about keeping bees.

The city’s Community Development Department is working on a beekeeping ordinance that could be ready as soon as spring – following cities including Somerville and Boston – but with no law in place, zoning specialist Sean O’Grady said he had limited options once two letters of complaint about bees arrived at the of the Inspectional Services Department: “Bees are not listed [in the law] and therefore not permitted.”

In pursuit of an orderly meeting that didn’t drag in issues the board was unequipped to debate, Alexander pointed out that zoning enforcement is driven by complaints, meaning residents shouldn’t bring up other examples of beekeeping in the city, law or no law, just as there should be no unproductive claims of “selective enforcement” or encroachment on religious freedoms. “It’s about what zoning permits and doesn’t permit,” he said.

But aside from attorney Herbert M. Weiss’ incredulous but brief exploration of how O’Grady came to identify the bees as “livestock” (“This is a red herring,” Alexander said in shutting down the topic), discussion at the meeting was mostly on point.

The meeting room in Central Square’s senior center was crowded with residents for and against – the pro-bee crowd had “Give Bees a Chance” stickers on their lapels – and Fox 25 News sent a reporter and camera crew to record the hubbub. But most didn’t get the chance to talk.

The Magazine Street congregation accepted the hives this year “to save these beehives from being destroyed” after their farm had been sold to a developer, Stern said. “It never occurred to me – honestly, I apologize – that anyone would be other than grateful that we had brought these bees into the neighborhood.”

When she heard people had complaints, she got in contact, Stern said. But one letter writer – Richard Bonarrigo, who wasn’t present at Thursday’s hearing – was identified by the rabbi as having a property dispute with the synagogue, and another, Robert Goss, initially hung up on her when she called. “I called every single person, I offered honey to every person, I did everything I could to create an opportunity to share their concerns, I said when we harvest the honey I would like to give you some, I did everything I knew to do,” Stern said, as some residents in the audience shook their heads.

But neighbors reported swarms of bees and more than occasional stings and weak responses from the synagogue, such as being told they could use an EpiPen kept inside.

“People were nervous to go out in their own backyard,” Goss said.

Stern said she welcomed the six-week chance to talk again. “I think a postponement is a great idea. I’m sorry it didn’t occur to me as an option,” she said, referring to holding a public meeting. “The last thing in the world I would want to do is alienate my neighbors.”

In echoing her initial offers of honey to the neighbors, Stern arrived at the meeting with a box top holding small jars of honey that she eventually passed out to the board members.

“I’m handing you honey,” she said. “This is not a bribe.”