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Legislators advance bills on bees, drones, home fire sprinklers

TRENTON New Jersey lawmakers in recent weeks cut a deal with Gov. Christie on the state Dream Act, pressed the governor's Port Authority nominees about controversial lane closures on the George Washington Bridge, and pushed competing proposals to preserve open space.

TRENTON New Jersey lawmakers in recent weeks cut a deal with Gov. Christie on the state Dream Act, pressed the governor's Port Authority nominees about controversial lane closures on the George Washington Bridge, and pushed competing proposals to preserve open space.

But that's far from all that has happened in Trenton. With just a few lame-duck session days to go, legislators have advanced bills addressing topics from honeybees and drones to home fire sprinkler systems and female genital mutilation.

The growing ranks of New Jersey beekeepers would receive greater protections under three bills that cleared an Assembly committee this month. One would give the state exclusive regulatory authority over beekeeping, setting rules for beekeepers and prohibiting bans by municipalities.

Janet Katz, president of the New Jersey Beekeepers Association, said the legislation was needed as more people take up the hobby, giving rise to complaints from neighbors and misunderstandings with municipalities.

A beekeeper of 25 years who has four honeybee hives on her one-acre property in Morris County, Katz said that for years, "nobody had a problem in the towns they lived in."

That began to change seven years ago, she said, as publicity about colony collapse disorder - a phenomenon causing extensive losses of honeybee colonies - grew. So did the number of beekeepers: The state beekeeper association membership tripled to 1,000 during that period.

The rising popularity prompted towns to pass beekeeping regulations, Katz said. Several have banned or restricted beekeeping, including Lower Township in Cape May County, according to the beekeepers association.

As neighbors lodge complaints, Katz has received calls from police and zoning officers, who "don't want to go inspect a property and try to determine if somebody is keeping their bees appropriately."

The bill cleared the Assembly Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee on Dec. 16, as did a second measure extending protections for farmers to commercial beekeepers and a third setting a $500 penalty for destroying a man-made hive.

During the hearing, no one testified against the bills, which have not been considered in the Senate.

In a measure with implications for new homeowners, a bill that would require fire sprinklers in new single- and two-family homes recently cleared a Senate committee.

The bill, which has won approval in the Assembly, would require sprinkler system installation during home construction. Sen. Donald Norcross (D., Camden), the bill's Senate sponsor, said cost estimates vary but would likely be about $2 per square foot, or $3,000 to $4,000 for a 2,000-square-foot house.

"This is certainly something that will save lives at a minimal cost," Norcross said. The systems would "last just like any other plumbing in your home," he said, and would require annual inspection. Under the bill, municipalities and the state Department of Community Affairs would be permitted to set a fee to cover inspection costs.

Norcross - who said sprinkler systems are "in virtually every commercial building" - likened the requirement to seat belts and air bags in cars. "Now, nobody would even think of" not having those features, he said.

Norcross, a member of the state Fire Safety Commission, said firefighters supported the bill. Officials with the Division of Fire Safety could not be reached Friday.

Sen. Robert Singer (R., Ocean) blasted the bill as "the last thing New Jersey needs."

"Government should not decide how families spend their personal income or force them to spend thousands of dollars more for things in their homes," Singer said in a statement.

In an effort to curb the reach of government, a bill advanced this month by the Assembly Homeland Security Committee would set standards for use of drones by law enforcement agencies and fire departments.

The measure would require police to obtain warrants before using drones except in certain circumstances, and would require records obtained through the use of drones to be discarded in 14 days if they are unrelated to an ongoing criminal investigation. It also would bar attaching a weapon to a drone.

The bill would permit certain uses of drones, including the search for a missing person, monitoring of fires - forest or otherwise - and in the event of a natural disaster or terrorist attack.

It's unclear what plans for drones the law enforcement community in New Jersey may have. A message to the FBI's Newark office was not returned.

"We don't have anything like that," said a state police spokesman who said he was not authorized to give his name without further research into the issue. As part of a national effort, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey has requested records from the state police on any use of drones, among other technologies.

Ari Rosmarin, public policy director for the local ACLU chapter, said the prospect of drones was "not science fiction."

"These are real tools that are already being developed that have real capacity to have tremendous benefits for New Jersey," Rosmarin said.

But without safeguards against abuse, he said, there is the potential "to head us down the path to a surveillance society that New Jerseyans would reject."

Eight states have passed drone privacy laws, and 36 have considered laws, according to the ACLU. The Federal Aviation Administration predicts 7,500 drones could be in U.S. airspace in five years.

Also working its way through the Legislature is a bill banning female genital mutilation of girls younger than 18.

An Assembly committee advanced the bill, which would set penalties of three to five years in prison and a fine of up to $15,000 for those who commit - or parents who allow - female genital cutting, a practice most common in regions of Africa, as well as some countries in Asia and the Middle East.

A cultural tradition, the practice has been denounced by the World Health Organization and other groups as a human rights violation with no health benefits and possible long-term health complications.

Does it happen in New Jersey? Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D., Bergen), one of the bill's sponsors, cited research by Brigham and Women's Hospital using U.S. Census data from 2000 that determined 18,500 women in New Jersey - 5,600 of them younger than 18 - were at risk of the practice based on their country of origin.

"It often happens, I guess, in secret, and it's difficult to assess, but it's certainly happening," Vainieri Huttle said. Twenty-one states have banned female genital mutilation, according to the AHA Foundation in New York, which advocates against the practice.