Coastal program turning the tide for VA’s working waterfront towns
Program, recognizing the economic importance of marine-related businesses, seeks to stem the loss of water access.
The replica paddle wheel steamer, the City of Fredericksburg, was high and dry, cradled on a 150-ton marine railway at Chesapeake Boat Works in Deltaville, VA.
Jon Farinholt watched as more than half of the 25 boatyard staff removed the sand that the most recent high tide deposited around the railway’s steel beams tracking from the railway’s engine shed into the water of Fishing Bay off the Piankatank River.
Farinholt pointed to a second railway lying idle next to the first. “This railway was rated to 300-tons, but the underwater sections of rail supports are rotting, and we had to stop using it last year.”
Farinholt and his brother, Rick, own the business — the shop spaces, the boat storage yard and the two marine railways — but they lease the land beneath their business assets from Ed Deagle, whose family operated the boatyard for more than 60 years before selling it in 2006.
“Mr. Deagle has been great to work with, and we have a long-term lease with him,” Farinholt said. “But he’s in his 90s, and he and his family haven’t decided what to do with the land.”
Without certainty about the fate of the land, which is worth a considerable amount of money and could be sold for other uses, Farinholt is reluctant to refurbish the big railway. Like many other businesses that make up the working waterfronts along the Chesapeake’s shorelines, Farinholt is facing an uncertain future.
“This year, we’ve had to turn away 10 of our regular customers, the big boats,” he said, “that come from all around the Bay — Baltimore, Norfolk, Crisfield, Washington, DC — because our marina can no longer accommodate deep draft vessels with the heavy-lift railway.”
Around the Chesapeake, there has been a gradual but steady loss
of waterfronts to land uses other
than those directly tied to and dependent upon the water, a trend that is also national.
Tom Murray, a marine resource economist at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and a partner of the Virginia Coastal Zone program, said the loss has been a “death by a thousand cuts” — one crab shucking house here, another oyster processing house there.
The population of Virginia’s coastal counties increased by almost 50 percent during the period from 1980 to 2003.
According to Beth Polak of the Virginia Coastal Zone program’s Working Waterfronts program, increased demand for waterfront property has increased both property values and taxes that have an impact on the bottom lines of traditional waterfront businesses.
At the same time, declining fisheries — from overfishing, poor water quality and ecosystems changing because of sea level rise — have contributed to the decline of those taking to the water to earn a living.
Working waterfronts have a big impact on Virginia’s economy.
A recent study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration showed that Virginia’s commercial fisheries generated sales of $1.5 billion and employed more than 19,000 people in 2012.
During that same year, the state’s recreational fishing industry employed another 8,000 and generated $834.4 million.
The study also estimated that recreational boating access allows another $1.2 billion in economic activity.
“These aren’t just local impacts, they represent benefits to all Virginians,” Murray said. Vacationers to Virginia’s coastal communities enjoy the ambience of the waterfront culture — and fresh seafood available right off the boat.
Many come for the access to launch their own boats, seeking amenities such as bait and tackle and overnight lodging at hotels and campgrounds.
“It’s a vicious circle,“ Murray explained. “As waterfront business go under, often waterfront access for everyone disappears as working wharves give way to condos and second homes.”
According to the 2013 final report of the national Sustainable Working Waterfronts task force, once working waterfront land is converted to other uses, it is likely to be lost forever as a working waterfront.
There’s also a ripple effect when the waterfront changes.
One fishing boat unloading in Hampton Roads, Murray said, might have four households depending on the catch being offloaded at the same dock that has been used for decades. “If the boat ties up in another community, the dockside workers who depend on that activity — ice vendors, welders, seafood handlers — may not be able to follow.”
In 1972, Congress recognized the need to meet the challenge of continued growth in the coastal zone — and the need to balance economic development with environmental conservation — by passing the Coastal Zone Management Act. The national program, administered by NOAA, provides for management of the nation’s coastal resources.
Funding to help coastal states is reauthorized every five years — and serves as base funding for Virginia’s Coastal Zone Management program, a network of state agencies and local governments that works toward sustainable coastal communities and ecosystems.
Program funding from Section 309 of the NOAA’s Coastal Zone Enhancement Grant Program has allowed Virginia’s coastal zone program to help the state’s coastal communities find ways to stem the decline of water-dependent businesses.
Even so, the Virginia CZM program — like many water-based businesses — is forced to do a lot with very little: The working waterfronts project has only $250,000 in funding for 2011–2015.
Laura McKay, director of Virginia’s CZM program, said these funds are highly leveraged with “matching funds” from local governments and coastal planning districts in Virginia. The six planning districts that represent tidewater communities in McKay’s coastal program are key partners for local knowledge, resources and implementation.
The goal of the most recent five-year grant is to develop a working waterfronts plan for Virginia.
The first step, McKay said, was to define “working waterfronts” in Virginia so that a comprehensive survey of the businesses and uses could be assembled.
Data from that survey are now being incorporated into Coastal GEMS (Geospatial and Educational Mapping System), an online portal to coastal resource data and maps that already includes the location of fisheries management areas, submerged aquatic grasses vegetation and public oyster grounds.
The working waterfronts partnership is focusing on tools that local governments can use to stem the loss of water-dependent businesses. Economic analyses will form the foundation.
Murray said that his group is developing four case studies — differentiated by region and type of businesses — to demonstrate to local governments ways to evaluate, in economic terms, the value of water-based businesses.
“It’s kind of like passing the baton to the local governments,” Murray said. “We worked through the planning districts to develop the inventory, and now we want to show local communities how they can use standard economic analyses to evaluate choices, say, between a proposed waterfront residential condo and a seafood based business.”
But sometimes localities in Virginia don’t have these choices because of outdated land use policies.
Many working waterfronts are lost when a business falls on hard times, or younger family members choose other lines of work.
Docks are little used and fall into disrepair, and once the business shuts down, the wharves and boatyards whose use has been “grandfathered” by local laws may be subject to new zoning regulations and require a special use permit to rebuild the dock or revive the business.
It costs time and money to go through the appeals process, both often in short supply for a self-employed waterman. Often the path of least resistance — and highest net gain — for family-owned real estate is to sell the property to the highest bidder.
Murray explained that waterside condos and second homes are often seen by local governments as the “highest and best use,” and land use regulations have been crafted to encourage them.
But the uncertain real estate development recovery may be providing breathing space for some localities under pressure.
The incorporated city of Poquoson is mostly rural tidewater just north of Hampton Roads. Like other Virginia coastal settlements, its heritage and history is deeply linked to the water.
Debbie Vest, Poquoson’s planning director, said that it took several tries before the city three years ago adopted the mixed-use overlay district that promotes multiple uses and could ultimately increase water-dependent businesses and public access.
Poquoson has been proactive in other ways, developing a blueways map to showcase public access areas — and making it known that the city would welcome a boat dry-storage business as well as other marina-related activities.
Sometimes an act of nature can open up new opportunities.
When Hurricane Isabel damaged the docks and ramp at Port Messick on the Back River, the city got creative about revitalizing an area that had been traditionally used by watermen.
The city entered into a public-private partnership with Bob Moses, who leases and runs Port Messick Marina. It upgraded the pier and built a parking lot for the boat ramp and 26 slips for working watermen and recreational fishing boats.
Moses, who works for National Aeronautics and Space Administration during the day, has won the respect of local watermen and the city by spearheading plans to revitalize the area that’s at the end of the road, but only 18 miles by water from the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel.
To protect the new assets from the considerable southeast fetch, Moses has shepherded plans for a breakwater through the permit process with state agencies.
Newcomers to a tidewater community may be attracted to the idea of the watermen heritage — and ready access to fresh seafood — but are unprepared for the realities of living near commercial seafood processing or marine construction operations.
And the conflict affects both watermen and new residents. Watermen are squeezed out of piers they need for loading and docking. Newer residents are distressed when they discover that aquaculture operations lighten the dark skies during night operations.
But commercial shellfish aquaculture operations support $100 million of economic output in Virginia and are wholly dependent upon access to water.
Anne Ducey Ortiz, director of planning and zoning for Gloucester County, explained how her community wasn’t thinking about protecting waterfront uses in the late 1990s when it updated its comprehensive plan. Conflicts over waterfront uses eventually resulted in the creation of the York River Use Conflict Committee that became the venue for ironing out some of the issues.
National legislation that would funnel more dollars to the Virginia (and Maryland) coastal zone programs has been stalled in Congress since 2011. But McKay’s program isn’t stopping.
The program continues to support shallow-water dredging studies that will clear the way for federal projects to keep waterways open and access viable for working waterfronts. Another part of the five-year plan is to work with local tidewater governments to encourage water-dependent businesses.
McKay said the CZM Working Waterfronts program is looking for one or two localities to work with to design and implement policies that could work throughout coastal Virginia.
Murray, the VIMS economist, said that maintaining water access for commercial enterprises and for the public has a cultural impact far beyond Virginia’s coastal communities. Think of a flounder boat, he said, coming in to unload 30,000 pounds of flounder. “They’re generating 100,000 meals for people who don’t fish, but love to eat the fish.”
Everyone in Virginia, Murray said, owns the common wealth of natural resources. “These facilities allow everybody to enjoy the natural resources that belong to everybody, whether it’s fish, or ecotourism, or whatever it might be.”