Proposed hold on dock use debated
County wants to ‘strike a balance’ among parties affected by commercial pier moratorium
A public hearing regarding a proposed moratorium on commercial dock use for oyster farmers who lease water from the state drew a large crowd Tuesday night. More than 30 speakers, including residents and out-of-county stakeholders, seemed evenly divided on the issue.
Concerned about a lack of communication between the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and St. Mary’s County government, and responding to county residents’ concerns, the St. Mary’s commissioners have proposed an 18-month ban on the use of county docks for future aquaculture farmers who are awarded 20-year leases from DNR to grow shellfish in public waters.
“We’ve heard from people who can’t trotline anymore … We’ve heard from people who can’t navigate areas in front of their homes and off their piers … but we also understand it’s a balance to cleaning up this bay that needs to be addressed,” Commissioner Mike Hewitt (R) said during the commissioners’ meeting Tuesday morning before the public hearing.
Put into effect in 2010, the DNR commercial aquaculture program allows aquaculture farmers to purchase water column leases at $25 an acre, or submerged land leases, also known as bottom leases, at $3.50 per acre.
Since the county cannot supersede state law, and since the lease areas are in state-regulated waters, the commissioners are seeking to “get a handle on” leases in the area through land use and zoning, Commissioner President Randy Guy (R) said in an interview.
The moratorium would limit all commercial dock use related to on- and off-loading of shellfish and equipment, and would affect
aquaculture farmers who obtain leases after the moratorium goes into effect. It would not affect watermen who do not lease from DNR.
“There is absolutely no mechanism to enforce” the moratorium, Commissioner John O’Connor (R) said during the hearing.
“I don’t know that we needed a moratorium to spark this, but sometimes you need to light a fire to get the other people in the room,” he said.
The ordinance has been proposed at the same time that DNR established a focus group, of which Guy is a member, to review the aquaculture program and review its current processes and regulations.
“Many of these issues came up during department listening sessions held across the state,” DNR communications director Stephen Schatz said in an email.
The commissioners are primarily concerned with water columns, which are close to the surface of the water and marked by buoys, rather than the invisible submerged land leases.
Water columns are not permitted within 50 feet of the shoreline, or within 150 feet of registered pound nets used for fishing by watermen.
Still, waterfront homeowners and watermen have found issue with the leases, which they can choose to protest through DNR. A number of residents near Calvert Bay off the Potomac River expressed concern about nearby leases that they feel limit their access to the bay.
Deb Raley of Ridge testified that she and three other homeowners were recently involved in a four-year dispute against a water column lease in Calvert Bay, due to concerns of navigation safety.
The original lease, which was reduced from 76 acres to 35.5 acres, is one of four water column leases that “take up the area from the mouth of Calvert Creek to the mouth of Smith Creek,” Raley said in an interview.
Water column cages cannot exceed 18 inches in depth, with 6.5 feet of depth permitted above the cages during mean low tide, according to the DNR application. A map provided to Raley by DNR showed that some leases in Calvert Bay were anywhere from 9.5 inches to 2.8 feet below the surface in mean low water, Raley said.
“I have no concerns about crab pots in the area, I have no concerns about cages on the bottom,” Raley said during the hearing. “I do have concerns when you have … cages going into the shallows.”
During the winter when the low tide of the creek iced over, Raley said, she observed cages sticking out of the water.
“I have more problem navigating through crab pots than I do a set oyster area, where I can see the floats,” Dan Rebarchick, a Hollywood resident and waterfront homeowner, said during the hearing. “But when I see crab pots … I know the man’s making a living.”
He added, “I feel that some people may not like to see them outside of their house more so than the hazard they cause.”
The moratorium was proposed after 13 waterfront homeowners expressed their concern to the commissioners about the leases near their property lines.
There is currently no available information on the affect of water column leases on waterfront property value, but some waterfront homeowners who spoke felt that their annual property tax rates should be adjusted due to the water columns.
Theresa Kuhns, government affairs director for the Southern Maryland Association of Realtors, said the public policy committee of Maryland Realtors had convened a statewide task force to address concerns about “the high rate of leases being granted, and its impact on environment, [waterfront homeowner] rights, and notifications provided to both the owners and agents representing any affected properties for purchase.”
During the announcement of the hearing earlier this month, Guy said DNR was not adhering to its policy of notifying county government when aquaculture leases were awarded. A leaseholder is required by DNR to notify adjacent homeowners when they have secured a lease, although they are not required to notify all nearby property owners who may be affected.
DNR “is in the process of developing an online listing of pending lease applications” available for public access “well in advance of the public notice,” DNR secretary Mark Belton said in an Aug. 1 letter to the commissioners.
Twenty-four water column leases are located in St. Mary’s, the most out of the 11 counties with aquaculture leases in nearby public waters. The county is second to Dorchester on the Eastern Shore for the most total aquaculture leases, with 97 water column and submerged land leases. Around 50 lease applications are currently under review, according to DNR, a process that, by design, can take years to complete.
One St. Mary’s shellfish farmer, Richard Pelz, who has been growing oysters in the county for 30 years, waited eight years to have his first water column lease approved, and has been in the review process for three more leases on St. Jerome Creek for three and four years, he said during the hearing.
Imposing the ordinance could automatically put Pelz in violation of any lease he was awarded, because of a “use it or lose it” clause in the lease contract, Pelz said.
He uses his own private dock for on- and off-loading. A few residents who testified found issue with the language of the moratorium, feeling it did not adequately distinguish between the types of docks that would not be allowed for commercial use, potentially infringing upon the rights of waterfront homeowners with piers.
A number of local and state organizations turned out to oppose the moratorium and its supporters, including the St. Mary’s County Farm Bureau, East Coast Shellfish Association, Coastal Conservation Association, Southern Maryland Shellfish Association and Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
Acknowledging the commissioners’ and residents’ assertions that the county should be more involved in the leasing program, Doug Myers, Maryland senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said the moratorium was “counterintuitive.” It would “halt any data points that you’re trying to collect from new leases,” Myers said. The ordinance also “does not accomplish the changes for the communication procedures,” he said, adding that it seems to oppose a stipulation of the county’s economic development plan that seeks to expand aquaculture.
There are “countless benefits” to having oysters in the bay, Allison Colden, fisheries scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foun- dation, said in an interview last week. A single oyster filters up to 50 gallons of water a day, removing nitrogen that fuels algae blooms and clearing up the bottom so grasses can grow, which attracts marine life. They also provide “habitat for both fish and smaller animals that normally live on oyster reefs,” Colden said.
The state has made it a priority to recover the Chesapeake Bays oyster population, which ais still a “tiny fraction of what it used to be historically,” Colden said. The first stock assessment on bay oysters is expected in December, but aquaculture leaseholders harvested 60,000 bushels of oysters in 2016, up 1,019 percent since 2012, according to the University of Maryland.
“If you hinder the growth of shellfish aquaculture, you’re dooming the restoration of our bay and its tributaries,” Brian Russell, president of the Southern Maryland Shellfish Association and aquaculture farmer with Shore Thing Shellfish.
“Many of these waterfront land owners enjoy our oysters, but don’t want to see the process occurring off their property,” he said.
“The Department of Natural Resources is the issue,” O’Connor said. “DNR didn’t listen to the St. Mary’s citizens. They failed us. … So we’re sitting here having this discussion because of the failures of the people in the state to listen to everyone that’s involved.”
DNR held numerous public sessions over the last decade as they developed regulations for aquaculture.
The St. Mary’s commissioners will accept public comment until next Tuesday, and will provide updates on the moratorium during their meeting on Sept. 11.