RECREATIONAL, WORKING WATERFRONTS CLASH IN SURRY SHELLFISH BID
SURRY — A controversy over a proposed aquaculture lease in Morgan Bay has morphed into a debate over the state's aquaculture application process.
Opponents of the lease believe the Maine Department of Marine Resources isn't properly taking local concerns into account when considering aquaculture applications, and some have accused the agency of conflict of interest. DMR has put off making a final decision about the lease application to allow for greater public input.
The debate centers on an initial application by Hancock shellfish farmer Joseph Porada to grow four acres of oysters and clams north of Jed Island in Morgan Bay. The lease would last for three years. While the plan worried many nearby landowners from the beginning, debate intensified during the public hearings on the proposed lease.
Porada has encountered stiff opposition before, including with a previous experimental lease in Goose Cove in Trenton.
"One letter said, ‘Here come the Goths and the Vandals, ready to destroy the coast of Maine,'" he said.
Porada said his interest in clam farming comes in his view that it's an alternative to overharvesting wild clam beds. He believes clam farming is a sustainable way to farm and utilize the waterfront.
"Shellfish is as clean as a farming operation as there ever can be. There's nothing added," he said.
According to published reports, some were dismayed to hear at a March meeting that Porada had filed applications for two additional leases.
Porada said he filed another application with DMR to bring the total size of the project up to 12 acres, but he also said he informed stakeholders about the full scope of the project as far back as 2009.
Porada said DMR aquaculture administrator Diantha Robinson asked that he not bring up the full scope of his plans in the public forums while the initial plan was being considered, but that she went ahead and mentioned it at the March meeting. Robinson declined to be interviewed for this story.
CHARACTER OF BAY
DMR officials said the potential for future leases is not part of the lease decision criteria outlined in law. They add that the cumulative impacts of any approved lease will be considered when other applications within the vicinity are reviewed.
Some shorefront residents and Surry town officials fear the proposed aquaculture project will change the character of the bay, said David Kallin, a lawyer hired by two Surry landowners, Nick Sichterman and Ann Backer.
Morgan Bay has not had any working waterfront operations for several decades, Kallin said. In that time, it has developed as a prime vacation rental spot and some residents are worried about a loss of income if the lease is granted. Kallin doesn't believe one aquaculture business venture should outweigh the recreational uses of Morgan Bay.
"You're giving a single individual an exclusive lease over a particular area of a common resource," he said.
But Dr. Brian Beal, a University of Maine Machias biologist who has collaborated with Porada on several experimental leases, believes such fears are overblown. Clam and oyster aquaculture is not as noticeable as lobstering, and Beal said Porada has worked with landowners at other lease sites to assuage concerns.
"A lot of folks are upset because they don't want to see a working waterfront in their backyard," Beal said.
PUBLIC INPUT PROBLEMS
Kallin says there have been a host of problems with the public comment process for the Morgan Bay application, including that the first meeting was held on the first night of Passover and the meetings did not allow adequate time for public comment.
"It wasn't until after 1 a.m. on the second night that it was really open to public comment," Kallin said.
DMR has since announced that it will hold another hearing in Surry on June 18 to allow more time for public comment.
Some environmental advocates and shorefront landowners believe the process by which DMR decides on aquaculture leases is inherently flawed, said Don Eley, president of the Friends of Blue Hill Bay. Eley and others believe DMR has a conflict of interest in these cases, since it has a mandate to encourage aquaculture and it also judges the applications. Because aquaculture takes place on state-controlled water, local municipalities and residents don't have the same say they would with land-based businesses, Eley said.
"The issue has nothing necessarily to do with aquaculture or this particular application," Eley said. "It's about how do local people interact with DMR so their concerns are actually heard and acted upon."
Beal is surprised by this complaint. He's been working with aquaculture projects for some 25 years, and it's the first time he's heard of people objecting to an application because of DMR's decision-making process.
"Nowhere that I can recall, even with salmon lease applications, has anyone questioned the department's ability to legally judge an application," Beal said.
DMR has just a handful of criteria for judging an aquaculture application. The Legislature can change the criteria, but DMR is working with the rules at hand, Beal said.
DMR spokesman Jeff Nichols said that DMR does in fact consider whether a lease would impact recreational navigation and recreational fishing as part of its review, and he contends the agency does not have an inherent conflict of interest when it comes to aquaculture.
However, the DMR website on aquaculture states: "DMR has a dual role of protecting and promoting Maine's marine and estuarine resources. In 1973, to meet this objective, the state developed a set of aquaculture laws designed to manage the fledgling industry," seeming to suggest its mission includes promoting aquaculture as well as regulating it.
Porada is confident his application will be approved.
"I have and will meet the criteria. Even if whoever decides Diantha [Robinson of DMR] is not the proper person or that DMR needs to find some impartial hearing officer to oversee these hearings, I will still meet the criteria," he said.
In late April, DMR officials said it would put off making a decision on the application while it reviewed the process for public input. The decision surprised both Porada and those opposed to the aquaculture lease.
DMR has responded to a Freedom of Information Act request from one of those opposed to the project, landowner Jack Pirozzolo, an attorney. According to Porada, Pirozzolo is asking for all correspondence between DMR and Porada in the last four years, which includes documents that could total some 4,000 pages.