The legendary Lynnhaven River oyster, reputedly the favorite of royalty and presidents in centuries past, is now at the heart of a local dispute that even George Washington might have had trouble settling.
According to Karen Forget (pronounced “for-ZHAY”), executive director of the environmental group Lynnhaven River Now, the river has the distinction of being the only urban Chesapeake Bay tributary where the water quality is high enough for commercial oyster farming. And there’s the rub.
Oysters had been harvested in the Lynnhaven for thousands of years, but pollution forced its closure decades ago as the Atlantic coast resort of Virginia Beach grew into a city and encompassed the watershed of the short tidal river.
The river is on the rebound, thanks to the concerted efforts of government and nonprofits like Forget’s group. But by the time a significant portion of the Lynnhaven’s oyster beds were reopened in 2008, few of Virginia Beach’s 450,000 residents had any memory of oystering on the river. Most knew it as a purely recreational resource for fishing, swimming and boating. Meanwhile, commercial oystering had been transformed in the intervening decades by aquaculture technology, such as oyster cages and trays.
Today, 44 percent of the Lynnhaven bottom is open for commercial oyster farming, and 97 percent of that area is leased to private growing operations.
Some waterfront homeowners, though, see oyster farms as an eyesore, a hazard and a threat to their property values. They are campaigning to roll back the industry and have made some headway. In January, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission put a temporary stop on new lease applications.
The VMRC subsequently extended the lease freeze, but relented a bit when it decided to process applications received before January, but maintaining the hold on newer requests. That still irks some homeowners.
Homeowner John Korte, a leader of the campaign to roll back oyster farming, complains that aquaculture is “running amok” on the river, endangering boaters and marring views. It’s especially disruptive to watercraft recreation, he said, noting that more than 12,000 non-commercial boats are registered to Virginia Beach residents.
Oyster cages on the river bottom must be marked with white plastic pipes, some of which must carry warnings signs to keep boats from striking the metal structures — although that still sometimes happens.
Before the Lynnhaven’s public oyster beds were closed in the 1930s, aquaculture occurred only in shallow waters, Korte said. Today, he said, oysters are being grown in cages at all depths of the river. More than 2,400 acres of the river bottom are leased and only 30 acres are publicly owned. “It’s out of balance,” he contended.
To Korte’s dismay, long-standing VMRC regulations provide that once a parcel is leased for oyster farming, the lessor does not need a permit to install cages if they rise no more than 12 inches off the river bottom. Under very long-standing Virginia law, leaseholders need only pay $1.50 per year per parcel and can hand them down to heirs in perpetuity, said Jim Wesson, the VMRC’s oyster restoration director.
Another gripe of property owners is the limited warning they get of new leases being sought in the river. Virginia law requires public notice of lease applications, but it specifies only that they be posted in courthouses and published in local newspapers. There is no direct notification of riverfront homeowners, even when the lease being sought would abut their property.
Some cast the debate as one between homeowners and the oyster industry, but Forget said that there are many homeowners who support the aquaculture, noting the prodigious water-cleaning capacity of the bivalves.
“This is a very important and complicated question about the best use of a common resource, the river bottom,” Forget said. “It’s difficult to manage that kind of resource” in an urban setting, she said. “The VMRC has its hands full.”
In 2015, Korte and his allies sought help from the state lawmakers. The 2016 General Assembly considered but did not pass bills that would have imposed rules that Forget and the oyster industry opposed. Instead, the lawmakers ordered the VMRC to convene a special advisory panel in an effort to find a mutually acceptable solution for all uses of the Lynnhaven River.
The VMRC tapped six homeowners, including Korte; three shellfish industry representatives; a marina operator; a Virginia Beach marine police officer, a person with both recreational and commercial fishing interests; and Forget. Chairing the panel was Ken Neil, a VMRC associate commissioner.
In the end, the panel unanimously agreed on only a few relatively minor recommendations. It urged the VMRC to add information about aquaculture activities to boater safety courses and to modify regulations that now let aquaculture leaseholders block river dredging sought by boaters. The panel also called for reforming the notification process. Though legislation would be needed to carry out that proposal, the VMRC has already prepared a website to post the applications online.
On Sept. 27, after the Bay Journal goes to press for October, the VMRC commissioners were scheduled to devote much of their monthly meeting to the competing demands on the Lynnhaven River. There will be a full public hearing, followed by a commission vote on major changes to current regulations, which were drawn up by commission staff.
The staff is offering commissioners two basic choices. One option would bar placing any more aquaculture gear in the Lynnhaven and require that all existing equipment in the river get permitted within two years or be removed.
The other option would allow aquaculture to continue much as it is today, but with setbacks from private property. No setbacks are required today. The proposal offers options ranging from 150 to 500 feet.
Whatever the VMRC decides, Forget said, could be a template for resolving similar disputes on other Virginia rivers where oyster aquaculture encounters challenges from waterfront homeowners.
“The issues are more intense” on the Lynnhaven today, she said, “but the issues exist everywhere.”