Residents split over fish farming rules at heated public hearing


Opinions about a proposed Southold Town code change that would define and regulate aquaculture uses fell into two camps at Tuesday night’s public hearing.

On one side were the farmers who supported the law and urged its quick adoption by the Town Board.

On the other were residents who demanded — at times loudly — that board members restrict aquaculture further, accusing them of “bending over backwards” for out-of-towners.

“You’re killing the area … and you’re only getting a subculture that’s here to use and abuse,” said Margaret Skabry of Peconic during the nearly two-hour public hearing.

As proposed, the law would limit land-based aquaculture — specifically, the production of fish, crustaceans or other sea life for sale — to properties of at least seven acres in the Agricultural-Commercial district.

Single-family homes are also allowed in those types of zones.

According to the new regulation, facilities housing aquaculture operations would need to be 200 feet away from any adjacent properties that could contain homes and 100 feet from any roadway.

Aquaculture could also be undertaken in light industrial zones without those restrictions, under the proposed law. Aquaculture operations in any part of town could use up to 10 percent of their space for retail sales, according to the proposal.

Southold Town code currently includes no definition of where aquaculture is permitted, which puts the town in a precarious situation, board members said. New York State has ruled that marine farming is protected under the state’s Agriculture and Markets Laws, which give prospective businesspeople a so-called right to farm.

Supervisor Scott Russell warned that without a code in place, a new aquaculture business could complain to the state that the town’s rules are inflexible and could win a judgment that would force the business into a poor location for residents.

Chris Baiz, who runs The Old Field Vineyards in Southold and is chairperson of the town’s agricultural advisory committee, said the legislation’s critics were grappling with “anxieties of the unknown.”

He said most of the concerns about potential aquaculture uses were “extreme” and said the law should be adopted as quickly as possible.

“Agriculture has one constant and that constant is change,” Mr. Baiz said. “Let’s just get this done.”

But North Fork Environmental Council president Bill Toedter said the board needed to consider what kinds of uses it was allowing before moving forward with the law.

He said opening the door too wide could bring in problems.

“To fix them costs a lot more than to prevent them,” he said.

Mr. Toedter said he was concerned about potential wastewater discharge from aquacultural uses, invasions of non-native plant and animal species and antibiotic drugs that could seep into the groundwater and add “pressure upon pressure onto the environment.”

Though the public hearing was supposed to focus on the proposed legislation, much of the attention shifted to Celestial Farms, a proposed shrimp-growing company that spurred harsh reactions from some residents after its owners met with the board during a work session meeting months ago.

Celestial Farms co-owner Tess Gordon gave a five-minute slideshow presentation Tuesday about their proposed facilities.

Ms. Gordon said their farm would be hormone-free and wouldn’t do any processing of the shrimp on site.

She said farming has always been in flux and displayed historic photos of old farm equipment through the years as her proof.

“Aquaculture is just the next logical step,” she said.

Though Mr. Russell tried to steer the discussion back to the proposed law, the presentation appeared to open the door to comments about the company itself.

“It’s their dream to do it,” said Tom Stevenson, a farmer from Orient. “Try to help their dream at least get a start.”

Mr. Stevenson said the Town Board should pass the legislation as is, adding that the board members could reevaluate the law in a year’s time.

“Just get a start and take it from there,” he said.

But Rod Stankewicz of Peconic said he didn’t want the North Fork to become a testing ground for someone else’s business.

“You need to slow down a little bit,” he told the board, “because I think you need to have some safeguards built in so you don’t have any problems.”

John Skabry, Ms. Skabry’s husband, cited a news story from Indiana about a fish farm that had angered neighbors to show what he believes could happen if aquaculture is allowed. He likened the Gordons to the company in that story, implying that their operation wouldn’t be as clean as they claimed.

At one point during his comments, Mr. Skabry also accused Mr. Russell and planning director Heather Lanza of improperly meeting with the Gordons before their application. He said the Town Board was rushing into the legislation.

When Mr. Russell tried to interject, Mr. Skabry shouted, “I have the floor!”

During her public comments, Ms. Skabry — who has been among the most vocal opponents of proposed aquaculture uses near homes — said the Town Board needs to put its residents first.

“This is our land and we have our regulations,” Ms. Skabry said, warning that election season is coming up. She said aquaculture operations should have to play by “all the hard rules.”

Specifically, she wanted to see the minimum property size increased to at least 10 acres.

Others said aquaculture uses would ruin preserved farmlands that had been purchased with taxpayer money.

“I think there’s a lot of fear in the people here about losing our town,” said George Aldcroft of Peconic.

“I don’t care how long it takes, we need to protect what we have,” added Nancy Sawastynowicz of Cutchogue. “If they don’t like that, let them go build it somewhere else.”

Ms. Sawastynowicz said the Town Board should reconsider the legislation and “protect the people who live here, who love the North Fork.”

That upset Celestial Farms co-owner Todd Gordon, who then took the podium.

Mr. Gordon said he and his wife had lived in Southold Town for 11 years. They weren’t “outsiders,” he protested.

“How long do I have to live in this town [before I’m a local]?” he asked.

“Never,” a voice called from the audience, laughing. “It never happens.”

The board ultimately tabled the proposed law for a later date.

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Photo Credit: Oyster farmer Karen Rivara speaks before the Town Board as residents listen intently. Ms. Rivara said the proposed legislation was not permissive enough for aquacultural operations similar to hers.