A battle over commercial oyster farming is acceptable on certain lands in York County reached the Supreme Court of Virginia earlier this year, however it may be resolved by a different Richmond institution.
The Virginia Senate is currently considering House Bill 1089, which has already cleared the House of Delegates with support from both Historic Triangle delegates. The bill, introduced by Del. Rick Morris (R-64th District), would bar municipalities from requiring special-use permits to engage in certain activities, including aquaculture, on land zoned for agriculture.
That change would be a big win for Greg Garrett, a Dandy man who wants to use his property to facilitate a commercial oyster harvesting operation in nearby waters despite objections from the county dating back to 2010. He has twice filed for a special-use permit for his oyster operations, however the applications were both pulled by him before they reached the York County Board of Supervisors, which has the final say over the issuance of special-use permits.
In 2012, Garrett turned to York-Poquoson Circuit Court, where a judge sided with him. The county then appealed the case to the Supreme Court of Virginia, where the justices ruled against Garrett.
Garrett, who said legal fees and the cost of operating his business within current county regulations has cost him $40,000, said he supports the bill. He said he has asked for reconsideration of the Supreme Court verdict. Because of the reconsideration request, Garrett said he still is allowed to operate his oyster farm, but his operation could be shut down at any moment.
“Oyster farming provides jobs for Virginians,” Garrett said. “Virginia imports too much of its seafood. We should be exporting oysters all around the world.”
He said all of the complaints he has received deal with hypothetical concerns.
“The whole reason I started growing oysters was to clean the [Chesapeake] Bay,” said Garrett, who added each of his oysters can filter about 50 gallons of water per day from the York River. “If I can inspire 50 or 100 more oyster farmers to start an oyster farm, we’re going to go a lot farther to clean the Bay.”
Though the bill was met with universal support in the House of Delegates, it has not faired as well outside of the General Assembly.
About a week after the bill cleared the House of Delegates, York County Supervisor Thomas Sheppard sent an email asking neighbors and county citizens to contact their representatives in the General Assembly and ask them to oppose the bill.
“The problem this causes residents of York County is that commercial aquaculture is not a traditional farming activity,” Shepperd wrote. “Commercial aquaculture farming, unlike traditional land-base farming, may involve hundreds and even thousands of underwater acres. After harvesting, the processing of aquaculture food products, such as oysters, and the storage of equipment may be accomplished on a very small plot of dry land. This processing and storage can have a significant negative impact on surrounding neighbors due to the resulting odors, noise, and traffic. These are not hypothetical problems. We are actually seeing the negative effects of commercial aquaculture operations today in York County and it is only through pending litigation that these negative effects are allowed to continue.”
Shepperd said the special-use permit process has long been used as a tool to provide “significant flexibility” in working with applicants and neighbors to allow multiple land uses in an area.
“HB 1089 will eliminate the Special Use Permit process and the ability of residents to voice their concerns over commercial aquaculture operations near their homes,” Shepperd wrote.
The bill has also received flak from the Virginia Association of Counties. Larry Land, the policy director for VACo, said in an email that the bill is problematic because it does not distinguish between on-bottom shellfish aquaculture and land-based agriculture.
Land said land-based agricultural operations are often spread out across multiple acres of land, limiting the intensity of the activity, where as shellfish aquaculture can be more disruptive to other activities in the area.
“For shellfish aquaculture in particular, much of the activity is generally concentrated on or near a pier that may be located on a small parcel where certain intensive commercial activities may not be compatible with other uses, especially if those uses are primarily residential,” Land said.
According to Land, the offloading on land and power washing of shellfish raised in cages and bags on neighboring bottomlands can disrupt residential and other land uses.
Garrett said the opposition he faces from York County motivates him to take action.
“It’s helped me to understand what other smaller businesses and smaller farmers and property owners have to go through in trying to fight different aspects of the government,” he said.
Kate Miller of the Capital News Service contributed reporting to this article.