Dock use mora­to­rium de­ci­sion pushed back

Pub­lic com­ment pe­riod ex­tended to Dec. 4

The Enterprise - - Front Page - By TAY­LOR DEVILLE tdev­ille@somd­news.com

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.

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