Waterfront homeowners and oyster farmers squared off in St. Mary’s County, MD, this week over a proposed ordinance to restrict expansion of aquaculture there. But the two-and-a-half hour public hearing ended Tuesday night with two of the five county commissioners suggesting the dispute could be worked out at the state level instead.Oysters grow in rows of floating cages at a site JD Blackwell leases along the Chesapeake Bay shoreline in St. Mary’s County, MD. (Dave Harp)

The Southern Maryland county’s board of commissioners is considering an 18-month moratorium on the use of commercial docks to support new state-approved aquaculture leases for growing oysters in cages or floats.

The county has no direct role in the approval of state-issued aquaculture leases, so they’re looking to change that by asserting local control over the use of docks and marinas that support the shellfish enterprises.

Oyster farming, which nearly died out in Maryland 15 years ago, has made a strong rebound after the state opened up more of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries to leasing. St. Mary’s County is an aquaculture hotbed, with 97 leases issued and another 44 pending, according to recent figures from the state Department of Natural Resources.

The surge in activity has generated friction with waterfront homeowners in the once completely rural county, now one of the state’s fastest growing. Randy Guy, president of the board of commissioners, said that local officials proposed the moratorium in response to “many complaints” about the proliferation of oyster cages and floats in local waters.

The crowd at the hearing in Leonardtown was divided but orderly, with each side occasionally applauding its advocates. Waterfront homeowners who pressed for the moratorium insisted they did not oppose oyster farming, but worried that the cages and floats could pose safety or navigation hazards and could limit or prevent recreational activities such as fishing, hunting or water skiing. Some also voiced fears that their homes would be worth less or that the oyster farmers’ use of marinas and commercial docks to land their products posed a food safety risk.

“Tap the brakes, and take a hard look at this issue,” urged Ben Wechsler, a lawyer who said he represented a group of waterfront landowners.

A representative of the Southern Maryland Association of Realtors also supported the proposal, citing concerns about the industry’s impact on property values.

As many spoke against the moratorium as supported it, including oyster farmers, environmentalists, watermen and even a couple of waterfront homeowners. They noted oysters’ positive effect on water quality and fish habitat and said that homeowners’ fears are overblown. The issues property owners are concerned about are already dealt with by state and federal regulators in reviewing lease applications, they said. And they warned that the local measure, even if temporary, could have far-reaching effects.

“An 18-month moratorium is not ‘tapping the brakes.’ It’s a huge roadblock to an industry that’s providing jobs,” countered Tal Petty, owner of Hollywood Oyster Co., one of the county’s largest aquaculture enterprises, with 15 employees.

The head of the St. Mary’s County Farm Bureau pointed out that aquaculture is a form of agriculture, and the county had previously supported it in order to diversify the local economy.

Johnny Shockley, a Dorchester County oyster farmer and former waterman, crossed the Bay to speak on behalf of the East Coast Shellfish Growers Association against the proposed moratorium. He acknowledged that not every proposed site is appropriate for aquaculture and that waterfront property owners have a right to unfettered access to the water. But he urged those in St. Mary’s to make their case to a recently formed DNR workgroup considering changes in the state leasing law and regulations.

Commissioner John O’Connor suggested at the hearing’s conclusion that the proposed moratorium had already served its purpose, because the DNR workgroup began meeting the same week the commissioners voted to consider it.

“Sometime, you need to light a fire,” he said, adding that until then DNR officials had failed to heed local complaints about the state leasing process. O’Connor pointed out that the county has no way to enforce the proposed moratorium and that oyster farmers could still work new leases by transporting their harvest to nearby docks in neighboring counties.

“I personally don’t see the need to have this passed because it’s not going to do anything,” he said. He added that he understands the frustration of waterfront homeowners and said “we will work this out.”

Guy, the commission’s president, said the proposed moratorium likely would be revised to clarify that it would apply only to the use of docks to support newly issued “water-column” leases, which permit raising oysters in cages on the river bottom or in floats near the surface. Other leases to raise oysters loose on the bottom are not controversial and would not be affected, he said.

The commissioners will take written comments through Tuesday, Sept. 4, and will decide on Sept.11 whether to approve the moratorium or table it. When they take up the issue, it may be that only four of the five commissioners will make the decision. Commissioner Todd Morgan, a vocal critic of cage and float aquaculture with a lease application pending in front of his home on the Patuxent River, announced before Tuesday’s hearing began that he was recusing himself on advice of the acting county attorney.

Guy indicated that he has mixed feelings about the issue. He expressed a personal fondness for oysters and said he was impressed by Petty’s aquaculture operation, but acknowledged the concerns voiced. As a member of the DNR workgroup, he said he would continue to make the case at the state level for giving property owners and local officials more say in leasing.

“I’m not against all this [aquaculture],” he said. “We just need better communication between DNR and the people affected.”

Comments can be emailed to the commissioners at csmc@stmarysmd.com or mailed to P.O. Box 653, 41770 Baldridge Street, Leonardtown, MD 20650.