Bay Residents Unite Against Oyster Leases

An outcry over implementation of Suffolk County’s Shellfish Aquaculture Lease Program in Gardiner’s Bay and Peconic Bay, in which parcels are leased for private, commercial shellfish cultivation, is getting louder. 

Last summer, residents who live along Gardiner’s Bay and members of the Devon Yacht Club expressed unhappiness about a changing seascape as floating oyster farms began to appear offshore from Promised Land to Devon, extending to the Napeague Harbor inlet. Last month, the yacht club filed a lawsuit in State Supreme Court seeking to bar leaseholders situated near the club from undertaking or continuing any action related to oyster farming at lease sites granted by the county’s Aquaculture Lease Board in July, or engaging in any other activity that would interfere with sailing. 

Now, two property owners on Cranberry Hole Road have launched a campaign to alert and unite their neighbors in opposition to the program, which was established after New York State ceded title to approximately 100,000 acres of bottomland to Suffolk County in 2004, and authorized the county to implement an aquaculture lease program for the region. 

“As residents of Cranberry Hole Road we are writing to inform you of a situation that has the potential to negatively impact our ability to use and enjoy the bay, our water views, and the value of our properties,” Michael Patrick and Philip Burkhardt, who are neighbors, wrote in a letter to residents on Monday. While floating oyster cages have been installed in just two lease sites to date, they wrote, a full implementation of the program would render more than 300 acres of the bay off-limits to recreational users. 

County officials published legal notices about the program, they wrote, but “did not seek input from affected homeowners directly and clearly did not consider the concerns of property owners and other recreational users of the water.”

“It wasn’t until I saw an article in The Star that talked about the size of it, potentially,” that the extent of the program became apparent, Mr. Burkhardt, a boater, kayaker, and stand-up paddleboarder, said yesterday. “The first was out to the northeast, then all of a sudden on the northwest area of the bay, you’re looking at that, saying, ‘What’s going on?’ ”

“We had seen boats doing stuff over the summer,” said Mr. Patrick, who swims, canoes, and kayaks in the bay, “but had no idea what was going on.” 

The problem, said Mr. Burkhardt, is that “this focuses a lot of traffic right along the shore. As a boater, a much more limited space concerns me.” 

“There’s got to be a safety issue here,” Mr. Patrick agreed. “I don’t think that was adequately considered.” 

Once those interested have signed on to the campaign to have their concerns heard, Mr. Patrick and Mr. Burkhardt plan to send a letter to County Legislator Bridget Fleming, East Hampton Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc, State Senator Kenneth P. LaValle, and Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. outlining those concerns. 

A draft of the letter refers to the hazards they say will result from a fully implemented aquaculture lease program. “Users of paddleboards, kayaks, sailboats, and power boats that tow water skiers, wakeboarders, etc., will be forced out much farther from shore, beyond these leases, and into the channel, which is very dangerous due to both strong tidal current and heavy power boat traffic,” it reads. “Moving closer to shore is not an option for many users due to shoaling, fish trap nets, lack of wind, and a desire to not conflict with bathers along the bay beaches.” Aesthetic considerations are also an issue, the letter states, with the “highly unattractive” floats and cages potentially impacting property values. 

Bayfront residents are not opposed to oyster cultivation, the letter states, and support efforts that would improve water quality (bivalves such as oysters, hard clams, and scallops filter the water as they feed, which helps to mitigate an overabundance of nutrients that promote algal blooms such as brown tide, which can kill shellfish and finfish). But they ask that the existing and proposed lease sites be relocated to areas that will not impede use of the bay by recreational boaters and property owners. As currently implemented, the program “is taking away a public resource used by hundreds for the benefits of a few private operators,” the letter reads. 

The notice was sent to as many of their neighbors’ email addresses as they could find, Mr. Patrick and Mr. Burkhardt said, and they plan a hard-copy package for the rest. “So far, we’re getting positive responses,” Mr. Patrick said. “We know there’s a lawsuit, but we thought it was important to get some politicians involved here. It appears there wasn’t the type of exchanges and conversation you ought to have.” 

Dorian Dale, the county’s director of sustainability and chief recovery officer, who serves on the aquaculture lease program’s board, said yesterday, “It’s good that people are engaged.” He added, however, that residents “would be well advised to do as much research on the program as they can, and get beyond the reflexive responses we have come to expect from folks in proximity to these kinds of issues.”

Mr. Patrick and Mr. Burkhardt hope that their neighbors will let them know by tomorrow if they will support the campaign.