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Crunch time on Eastern Shore for shellfish plan

VIRGINIA - Two of the biggest economic engines on Virginia's Eastern Shore these days - shellfish farming and waterfront development - are headed for a showdown

Cherrystone workers Kenneth Frisby and Capen Campbell harvest clams. The Bay Creek development is in the background. Pic:Delores Johnson, Virginian Pilot

Clam and oyster farming, now a $50 million-a-year industry, requires clean water. Development, with new roads and added storm water and sewage, often sullies clean water. And that's the rub.
It's also why a state proposal to create "Aquaculture Enhancement Zones" throughout the Eastern Shore is causing such a furor.

On the one hand, the zones - which would be the first of their kind in Virginia - are perceived by supporters as necessary tools to force developers to use more environmentally sensitive techniques when planning and building new homes, condos and shopping centers.

To opponents, the proposal is a vaguely conceived intrusion on property rights and future growth, a government grab that benefits a single industry at the expense of others.
Anonymous e-mails have been flying in recent weeks warning that the aquaculture zones would make it difficult to even build a driveway, or could stymie waterfront development altogether.

"It's so ambiguous, so broad-ranging, I can't imagine what our own state government is thinking," said Wanda Thornton, a longtime member and political force on the Board of Supervisors for Accomack County, one of two counties on the Shore.

Thornton, whose district includes the resort town of Chincoteague, said she found out about the proposal only by accident, at an unrelated meeting a month or so ago.
"This is why people don't trust government," she said. "I don't know anyone who's in favor of this thing."

At a political forum last week in neighboring Northampton County, the idea garnered plenty of support.

Four of five candidates running for seats on the Northampton County Board of Supervisors spoke in favor of the proposal - in part, they said, because local development rules are not adequate to balance development and shellfish.

"Nobody wants to be perceived as anti-aquaculture," said Jeff Walker, a board member seeking re-election. "Whether it's runoff from farms, from development or storm drains, we clearly have a need to better control this."

The purpose of the enhancement zones, according to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, is "to provide additional protection" of waterways where shellfish farming exists today or might exist in the future.
Opponents worry that this could mean the entire Eastern Shore.

A written notice describing the proposal says developers would have to "demonstrate that practicable alternatives to discharging pollutants" into shellfish waters "have been evaluated and that the proposed discharge is the alternative that produces the least environmental impact."
Left unsaid, however, is what kind of discharges the state wants to curb.

Sewage is clearly defined as a target, given that faecal bacteria in human sewage can contaminate shellfish beds and force their closure.
But there is no mention of other major threats to healthy clams and oysters - nutrient-rich runoff from tomato fields and other farms, and muddy storm water from development sites.
Such vagueness, though, is intentional.

No parameters
The proposal at this point is just "a notice of intended regulatory action" - basically, a concept without parameters or specifics, said Elleanore Daub, a state environmental official overseeing the initiative.

Daub said it could take up to two years to form an advisory committee, hold meetings, draft formal rules, take public comment and send a proposed regulation to the State Water Control Board for a vote.

A first informational meeting about the zones is scheduled for today at 2.00pm at the Eastern Shore Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Painter.
"I hope they'll have enough room for us all," said Thornton, predicting a huge turnout.

Clam farming on the Eastern Shore has exploded in the past 20 years, moving from a few experimental plots to the largest source of aquaculture-grown hard clams on the East Coast.

Cherrystone Aqua Farms is symbolic of this remarkable expansion, though its headquarters remains in the same, small spot on the Chesapeake Bay. The company, based in Cheriton in Northampton County, sells millions of clams and oysters each year to markets around the country, including many grocery stores and restaurants in Hampton Roads.
Its president and general manager, Mike Peirson, a biologist by training, has watched nervously for years as marinas, golf courses and condos in Cape Charles have crept closer and closer to the many creeks in which clams grow.

"Once you lose the creeks, it's game over for the aquaculture industry," Peirson said. "Storm-water management and sewage aren't really dealt with in any comprehensive way. There's no overall plan. And we're the ones suffering from that," he added.