Dock use moratorium decision pushed back
Public comment period extended to Dec. 4
The St. Mary’s County Board of Commissioners voted Tuesday morning to extend the public comment period for a controversial temporary ban on commercial dock use for aquaculture farmers with state leases.
In lieu of making a decision on whether or not to move forward with the ordinance, the commissioners have extended the comment period to Dec. 4, after an outpouring of public comment continued beyond the original end of the comment period on Sept. 4.
During a public hearing on Aug. 28, 13 people spoke in support of the ordinance while 17 spoke against it, David Weiskopf, county attorney, said. The county received 18 more public comments after the comment period ended.
Concerned about a lack of com-
munication between the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and St. Mary’s government, and responding to county residents’ concerns, the St. Mary’s commissioners proposed an 18-month moratorium on the use of county docks for future aquaculture farmers who are awarded 20-year leases from DNR to grow shellfish in public waters.
Because the county cannot supersede state law, and since the lease areas are in state-regulated waters, the commissioners were seeking to tap the brakes on leases in the area through land use and zoning.
If approved, 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, according to county government staff.
A public hearing about the proposal on Aug. 28 drew a large crowd. Representatives from the St. Mary’s County Farm Bureau, East Coast Shellfish Association, Coastal Conservation Association, Southern Maryland Shellfish Association and Chesapeake Bay Foundation protested against the moratorium.
The ban was proposed after 13 waterfront homeowners expressed their concerns to the commissioners about the leases near their property lines. The commissioners also
heard from residents worried about the limited recreational use of the water as a result of the water column leases.
The places where people like to go swimming is the best bottom for the oyster cages, Commissioner Mike Hewitt (R) said.
“We’ve heard from people who can’t trotline [for crabs] 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,” Hewitt said during the commissioners’ meeting Aug. 28, before the public hearing.
“This is ink on paper that will do nothing to the current process that’s in place,” Commissioner John O’Connor (R)
said in August. “It was a necessary evil to get to this point, so we can make the state realize that they need to keep St. Mary’s County and others in mind in the overall scheme of things.”
The ordinance has been proposed at the same time that DNR established a focus group, of which Commissioner President Randy Guy is a member, to review the aquaculture program and review its current processes and regulations. Last month, Guy (R) 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.
Some residents who opposed the ordinance 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.
Extending the public comment period will allow the commissioners to review the language of the ordinance before voting on it.
“There are plenty of points in the ordinance that need to be worked out,” O’Connor said Tuesday.
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.
“We’ve got [the state’s] attention,” Hewitt said. “If we can come to a compromise … by the time this legislature rolls around in January … we can find something that works for everybody,” Hewitt said.