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Commissioners move to deny Oyster moratorium hearing

Leonardtown, MD – The St. Mary’s County Commissioners voted 3-1 to deny a motion for public hearing regarding a 180-day moratorium on commercial dock use associated with water column leases.

Commissioners Mike Hewitt [R-District 2], Eric Colvin [R-District 1], and John O’Connor [R-District 3] voted to deny the hearing, citing the county’s lack of jurisdiction over the waterways as a primary reason. Colvin summed up the trio’s thoughts, stating, “I’m in agreement with my fellow commissioners that this has run its course. We should just let this go. This is an attempt to fix a problem we have no control over.”

Commissioner President Randy Guy [R] was the motion’s lone detractor. Guy encouraged the commissioners to give more time to the newly appointed state representatives, namely Sen. Jack Bailey [R-District 29]. “I think that we’re making a mistake here and we should give our new senator and delegate a chance to try and put some bills through.” Both Bailey and Del. Brian Crosby [D-District 29B] proposed legislation to give more control of leasing to counties and residents that failed to gain momentum.

The ordinance for the 180-day moratorium went into effect Dec. 25, 2018 after the commissioners received complaints about surface level aquaculture, restricting oyster farmers from unloading at public docks. The surface level oyster farms are more popular among watermen than the less intrusive bottom oyster farming according to research done by the county in the four months since the moratorium.

Bill Hunt, Land Use and Growth Management director, presented the county’s findings to the commissioners before their motion. Hunt stated that lack of predators, ease of harvest, and faster yield are the chief reasons for the practice’s popularity. He also explained that St. Mary’s County provides the perfect environment for oyster farming, making the county one of the most desired locations for leases in the state.

In 2009, the Maryland General Assembly opened up a significant portion of public waterways in an effort to reverse a steep decline in the Chesapeake Bay’s oyster population through the 1900s. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) states that “the regulations expanded the scale of oyster sanctuaries, created new opportunities for oyster aquaculture, and designated areas to be maintained for the pubic fishery with the intent of advancing oyster restoration.” According to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which opposed the moratorium, a healthy oyster population is paramount to the Bay’s ecosystem. Helping improve water quality by filtering “algae, sediment, and other pollutants.” The group’s annual report card showed a decrease from a C in 2017 to a D+ in 2018.

One of the concerned citizens is Commissioner Todd Morgan [R-District 4] who has recused himself from hearings and votes involving the water column leases. Morgan owns a waterfront home and objected to a lease application off his shoreline.

The commissioners all voiced their concerns with a lack of communication with the DNR, who failed to supply Hunt and his team with requested information. The state’s DNR fell under harsh criticism from the commissioners and some constituents during the moratorium’s initial public hearing for “not listening” to requests form the county.

With the motion denied, the water column moratorium will end in June.

Contact Jerold at staffwriter@thebaynet.com.

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