Oyster Farm Hits the Rocks

Folkstone Creek plan raises questions for trustees
The owners of Sunset Cove Marina on Folkstone Creek off Three Mile Harbor hope to install oyster-growing platforms where boats used to be. The town trustees had many questions as they considered a permit request on Monday. David E. Rattray

When John Nicholas closed down his family’s marina on Folkstone Creek in Three Mile Harbor at the end of the boating season last year he did so in the hope of converting it into a facility able to produce as many as one million oysters a year for the commercial market. 

As Mr. Nicholas broke the news in the fall to the roughly 20 small-boat owners who had berthed at Sunset Cove Marina, some for years, he was nearly bouncing with excitement. He made it clear that his East Hampton Oyster Company was on its way to speedy success.

But the plan ran into a stiff headwind on Monday night when the project ran aground on the shoals of the East Hampton Town Trustees. 

The trustees are the stewards of nearly all underwater land in East Hampton, other than in Montauk. For Mr. Nicholas’s project to go forward, it would have to obtain their blessing, in addition to that of the state, county, and possibly the East Hampton Town Planning and Zoning Boards.

Trustee John Aldred, a former director of the town shellfish hatchery, presented an outline of the oyster farm concept for the north end of Three Mile Harbor to the trustees at their meeting at Town Hall on Monday. It was the first local airing of the plan; the East Hampton Town Planning Department has not received any paperwork in connection with it.

“This is kind of a big deal,” Mr. Aldred said.

Mr. Nicholas and his parents, George and Stacy Nicholas, propose to abandon the use of the waterfront and adjacent creek as a marina. In its place would be 65 floating water-circulation platforms. 

To the untrained eye, one of the shellfish growing units, known as a floating upweller system, or flupsy, looks a bit like low docks or swim floats. The action is all underneath, where thousands of young oysters are contained in cages or baskets, bathing in a continually refreshed stream of plankton-rich seawater. The oysters are reached through hatches in the deck.

The roughly 13-foot-square flupsys require an electrical service line and are placed in water that is at least three feet from the bottom at low tide. Mr. Nicholas already has trustee permission for two units, but the scale of his plan drew a floodtide of comments at Monday’s meeting.

Trustee Bill Taylor said that he was concerned about the density of the installation and its effect on boat traffic, particularly from the nearby homeowners association’s small marina at the very end of the creek. “There’s a lot of questions about this,” he said. “It’s a very narrow and shallow area in there.” 

“My first question is, is this a change of use?” Francis Bock, the trustee’s clerk or presiding officer, asked. 

“Well, yes it is,” Mr. Aldred replied. Though the application put the project entirely in the trustees’ court, he said.

The East Hampton town code does not mention aquaculture, Mr. Aldred observed. This could present a high bar for Mr. Nicholas; unless a land use is specifically allowed in a zoning classification, it is by default not allowed. The upland property that the Nicholases own is classified as residential, though it contains a tennis court and several rental cottages and a golf hole and putting green in addition to the now empty marina.

By Mr. Aldred’s estimate, the project would extend the flupsy units roughly 45 feet from a bulkhead and floating dock already at in the creek.

“It looks like it impinges on the channel,” Mr. Taylor said.

“When you start measuring these things out into the water, it’s almost, you know, in the middle,” said Susan McGraw Keber, a trustee.

“One of the biggest things is what is the carrying capacity of this creek in regards to the oysters,” Mr. Aldred said.

“As this is presented, this is a problem,” Trustee Brian Byrne said.

“Whether it’s 65 or 32 flupsys, shouldn’t the onus be on the applicant to do the research . . . that this body of water, being in that cove there, is going to be sufficient enough for these critters to grow?” he later asked.

Much of the environmental review for the project would be done by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

“My concern is, if you weaken the stock, because they don’t have enough food and you put too many oysters in there, will disease be able to be introduced that then may affect the natural product around it?” Mr. Aldred asked.

Additionally, the town hatchery would not be able to supply all of the oyster spat Mr. Nicholas would need, he said.

“I would be concerned about non-town oysters and disease,” Trustee Rick Drew said. Trustee Susan Vorpahl said that she would prefer to see what happens with a smaller, trial project.

Chris Carrillo, the trustees’ attorney, said that this was new territory for the board. “We should go slow. This could set precedent. We should set a procedure for the use of trustee lands for aquaculture going forward.”

“Starting this season might be optimistic,” he mused.

“We are not even close on this,” Mr. Bock said, bringing discussion on the matter to an end.

In an interview on Monday, Mr. Nicholas said that the plan was to grow most of the oysters not to market size in the creek but rather to raise them in the algae-rich environment for several months until they were big enough to transfer to floating cages in Gardiner’s Bay.

The flupsys would not intrude on navigation in any way, he said. “It would be the same footprint as where the boats were,” he said.

“Where we are is a perfect spot for 

oyster production,” he said, adding later, “We’re trying to clean up the waterway.”

“There is a real need for the middle stage. You can’t take oysters under six millimeters and put them out in the cages like that,” he said. 

The East Hampton Oyster Co. has secured county leases to two 10-acre plots in Gardiner’s Bay off Promised Land, he said. Some of the crop would be held until it reached market size and some would be available for other commercial growers uninterested in weaning the tiny seed oysters through their first summer growing season.

The portion living in the bay plots would overwinter on the bottom, he said.

Mr. Nicholas said that he had met with two of the trustees at the former marina on Tuesday and that he would consider making some changes that they suggested.