Aquaculture’s future still unsettled; Pierce County interim regulations halted


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Chris Fitzgerald, KP News

The Pierce County Council voted nearly unanimously to reject interim aquaculture and dock/pier regulations (Ordinance No. 2007-34s) on Aug. 7, prompting cautious jubilation from aquaculture farming proponents, shellfish industry representatives and small parcel owners awaiting permit approvals. Opponents who urged the council to pass the regulations shook their heads in disbelief. After months of meetings, public hearings, and citizen-submissions of documents, materials, opinions and pleas both pro- and con- aquaculture, creating a file over six inches thick (according to council research analyst Ward Taylor), and a “do pass” recommendation from the council’s community development committee, the council declined to act. Councilman Terry Lee was the lone “yes” vote.

Taylor Shellfish manager Brian Phipps answers questions during an August tour of a geoduck farm at Totten Inlet. Photo by Chris Fitzgerald

A week after the vote, the council held a meeting at Riverside in central Pierce County. The first item of business after roll call was a motion from Councilman Shawn Bunny (District 1), who said, “Having voted on the prevailing side (“no” vote) and there being no intervening business, I move that we reconsider Ordinance No. 2007-34s .” The motion was passed unanimously. Councilman Tim Farrell’s motion to refer the ordinance back to the community development committee for a Sept. 10 hearing was also unanimously passed.

In a phone interview, Councilman Terry Lee said, “I was very surprised in the action the council took… regarding denying the regulations around aquaculture/geoduck farming. I believe it was the result of having packaged amendments to docks/floats/piers in with the aquaculture piece. The reason that occurred is that they both come out of the same master planning document, the shoreline master program. Initially it made sense because we could move both out under the same document in the same ordinance, I think to have done a better job of it would have been to separate both of them although no comments were received on docks/piers until the very last day. I believe that’s what unraveled it all.

"I believe the council is as committed to protecting the rights of shoreline owners as ever. I think the ordinance will be split and docks/floats/piers will be taken out and that discussion will take place as we do a comprehensive overview of the master shoreline plan, to be complete in December 2008.”

Regarding the community development committee and subsequent council hearings, Lee said, “I believe the aquaculture piece will move forward out of committee as is; I’m not hearing any glaring concerns about (the ordinance) as drafted… I’ll get it out as soon as possible, and implemented as soon as possible. I think I’ll be able to get the train back on the tracks.” After full council approval, the ordinance must be sent to the state Department of Ecology for review, approval, or rejection within 90 days.

Locally, a new nonprofit citizen group, the Case Inlet Shoreline Association, has been formed. A spokesperson said the organization is fighting an application filed by Andrew Sewell for cultivation of 26 acres of tidelands in Dutcher Cove. In an email to the KP News a CISA spokesperson wrote, “Dutcher Cove and Dutcher Creek support a coho salmon run, a local bald eagle family, cutthroat trout, and massive sand dollar beds…To say we will fight this (application) is putting it mildly. We are, in a word, at war.” The spokesperson spoke on condition of anonymity, stating safety concerns.

Sewell purchased lots 3 and 4 in a four-lot waterfront subdivision in 1991. The deed contained a permanent easement placed on it by former owner Florence Best, reading in  part, “Any commercial use of the Oyster Land/Tidelands is prohibited.” In 1999, Michael Elston purchased Lots 1 and 2 from Best, with the same restrictions. Together, Elston and Sewell were the only owners of the entire waterfront subdivision. Under Washington real estate law, they could, and did, apply for and receive an “Extinquishment of Easement” in 2000, despite Best’s efforts to provide a perpetual easement for “...recreational/beach activity...” On July 19, Sewell applied to Pierce County for cultivation of 26 acres of  intertidal tidelands reading, “with the main product being Manila clams, oysters and geoducks, in cooperation with the state and other shellfish growers…” “These are environmental issues that go way beyond legal constraints,” the CISA spokesperson said. “Our goal has to be that no one can lease land from Sewell (and circumvent the easement restrictions).”

In July at the first meeting of the newly formed Shellfish Aquaculture Regulatory Committee (created by statute as a condition of House Bill 2220, sponsored by Rep. Pat Lantz and passed during the last legislative session), ground rules were developed: Public comment will be taken at meetings, participants may record proceedings, minutes and materials will be posted at sea/shellfishcommittee. Lantz summarized the intent of House Bill 2220, reminding members, “What we have now is a ‘perfect storm’ of tremendous economic opportunity colliding with property rights, ecological concerns, economic factors, and the Shoreline Management Act.”

Remaining meeting time was used by Taylor Shellfish spokeswoman Diane Cooper’s industry slideshow. No time remained for Patrick Townsend’s presentation representing environmental interests. He requested permission to also submit a slideshow to members of the committee, and received no objection from members other than Cooper.

Following a field trip in early August to a Totten Inlet Taylor Shellfish geoduck operation, committee members received a letter from Seattle Shellfish owner Jim Gibbons (not in attendance or on the committee). He objected to Townsend’s slideshow submission. (Subsequent protest letters from Taylor and Dan Cheney, Pacific Shellfish Institute, arrived within days.) Gibbons wrote, “Although representative Lantz is an effective legislator she hardly seems bi-partisan on the issue of geoduck farming….not only did (she) show up (at the beach tour)…(her) continued presence in the HB 2220 process also seems inappropriate.” Gibbons also objected to alternate committee member Laura Hendricks (Henderson Bay Shoreline Association), and a news reporter attending the beach event.

Lantz’s emailed response to the committee and other attendees addressing Gibbons’ concerns read, “I am not a member of the committee and have not held myself out as one. I was asked to be a participant at the opening meeting because I am, after all, the author of the legislation creating the body, and uniquely able to give the Legislature’s intent and perspective in adopting the bill, and I have a significant interest in seeing that the committee process assures fair, even handed discussion and decision making… I intend to monitor the committee’s work as my time allows.”