When Maryland changed its law in 2009 to allow widespread aquaculture for the first time, those who pushed for the change had hoped that traditional watermen would get into the oyster cultivation business.
They also hoped to attract college-educated, business-savvy, conservation-minded entrepreneurs who were excited about the chance to revive the Chesapeake Bay’s signature shellfish. They were hoping to foster the idea — now dominant in nearly every shellfish-producing sector in the country — that growing oysters and clams delivers ecological benefits while preserving the native populations.
They were looking for people like Scott Budden, a Chestertown native who returned to the Eastern Shore with a degree from Bucknell University and a career as a financial analyst. Budden spent three years researching how he would establish an oyster company, what kind of gear he would need and the best place to grow his crop before applying for a lease in spring 2013.
In May 2014, the Department of Natural Resources approved Budden’s 4-acre proposed lease north of Ringold Point and put it out for the next step: the public feedback process.
Budden thought he’d be able to start his oyster farm quickly and had even lined up some part-time workers after the May 14 approval. But then, within the 30-day comment period, waterman Wayne Wilson protested the lease and pressed his case at a DNR hearing in Centreville, in neighboring Queen Anne’s County.
Budden still felt optimistic. He had the support of the Kent County Chamber of Commerce, environmental groups, and the current and former Chestertown mayors. On Nov. 18, Budden went before the Kent County Commissioners to describe his project. They voted unanimously to support it.
But one month later, Commissioner Ron Fithian changed his mind. He wrote to the state questioning the project. Then, Fithian decided Kent County would have its own public hearing — something the state does not require.
Fithian, a former waterman and current Rock Hall town manager, is chairman of the Clean Chesapeake Coalition, a group openly critical of the DNR’s oyster restoration policies — in particular, the prohibition on power-dredging for oysters north of the Bay Bridge. He said those issues had no bearing on his feelings about aquaculture, or the fact that Budden is not a waterman but wants to get into the water business.
“I opposed it for one reason — to bring attention,” Fithian said. “I heard there was some opposition. I forced it to come to a public hearing.”
Besides Wilson, the owners of the Napley Green Gun Club also oppose the lease and say it would interfere with their hunting business. Sometime after Roscher’s office had reviewed the lease, but before they conditionally approved it, Napley’s owners put in a duck blind.
Phil Hoon, a Chestertown attorney who is representing the Napley owners, said his clients have had a license for a blind close to Budden’s proposed lease since 2010. Hoon, who lives nearby, said the area has always been popular with hunters, and five blinds are already along the shoreline. Natural resources officials “should have checked for that” before approving the lease, Hoon said.
The delay is frustrating to Budden and to those trying to encourage Maryland aquaculture.
“I am a small-business owner trying to build something in our river that will create jobs, grow the local tax base and improve the local economy and the Chester’s health,” Budden said. “As long as laws and regulations are followed, there should be no reason for blanket political opposition to a fledgling industry; especially one that cleans up the river and improves commercial fisheries at little to no cost to the taxpayer.”
Don Webster, a longtime aquaculture supporter in Maryland who has helped many watermen transition into the business, agreed that the industry should be encouraging Budden.
“He’s a very fine young man who is the type we really need to attract to this industry,” said Webster, who co-chairs the state’s Aquaculture Coordinating Council. “Scott has a good business sense. He’s thought this through.”
Since 2010, when Maryland began issuing leases, the Department of Natural Resources has granted 318 shellfish aquaculture leases on 4,000 acres. More than 1,400 individuals have been permitted to have some role in shellfish aquaculture, whether it is transporting shellfish, growing seed, leasing the bottom or working floats, said Karl Roscher, who manages the DNR’s aquaculture program.
But Budden’s farm would be the first in the Chester River, an area that was once fertile ground for wild oysters and isn’t anymore. Part of the reason is that the state used to seed the Chester with millions of oyster spat and shell. The state still puts some seed in the Chester, but it shifted its focus to large sanctuaries such as Harris Creek on the Choptank River. The salinities in the Chester have decreased over time, in part from slugs of freshwater from stronger storms. Pollution, overharvesting, diseases and a lack of natural recruitment have all harmed the once-plentiful grounds here.
“Kent County doesn’t like change. Change is hard,” said county resident Kate Livie, who, like Budden, returned to the area after working elsewhere. Livie is writing a book about the Chesapeake Bay oyster and spoke in favor of Budden’s lease at the county’s public hearing in January.
“There is this fear that there will be this proliferation of privatization at the bottom,” she said. “So when I spoke, I said, ‘This is happening. It’s happening in Virginia, it’s happening in Maryland and it’s going to happen here, whether it’s Scott’s lease or another lease.’”
Both Roscher and Webster said this conflict is surmountable; Budden can’t work his lease within 500 yards of the blind when it’s occupied, nor would he want to. Waterfowl hunting occurs in cold and miserable weather, whereas much of the aquaculture work occurs in the summer. Other leaseholders have worked out agreements with hunters, Webster said.
The next step for Budden is an administrative hearing, where DNR attorneys will represent him. The DNR has been through this process several times and emerged victorious, though it can take several years to hear appeals.
Fithian thinks Budden should move his lease to a less-contested area. If Budden did that, he would have to start the process over. And though Budden knows getting a lease would probably be easier in a county that already has aquaculture, he wants to open his business in Kent County.
“I could probably get a lease in another county, and in another state, but I want to do it here,” Budden said. “Because I grew up here, and it’s a river I love.”