Legislator withdraws bill raising oyster leases

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC/CNS) – Virginia watermen can heave a sigh of relief after a legislator withdrew his bill to increase the cost to lease the bottom of state-owned waterways for growing oysters and clams.

Perhaps one of Virginia’s best bargains, the annual right for leasing oyster planting grounds will remain only $1.50 per acre. Senate Bill 298, proposed by Sen. Bill DeSteph, R-Virginia Beach, would have raised the annual rent to $5,000 per acre for leasing planting grounds within 1,000 feet of shoreline residences.

DeSteph withdrew the bill Thursday at a meeting of the Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee. SB 298 is one of several bills introduced by DeSteph that were prompted by waterfront homeowner complaints that oyster farms have encroached on their properties and recreational use of the water.

To work out these issues, the Virginia Marine Resource Commission decided this week to enact a seven-month pause on new and pending lease applications for commercial and riparian leases within the Lynnhaven River system. The VMRC is forming a task force to study conflicts between commercial aquaculture leaseholders and other users of the waterways. The study will look at include recreational uses, navigation issues, privacy issues, property rights and property values.

“The No. 1 job of elected officials is the safety and security of our citizens,” DeSteph said in a statement Friday.

“We must find a balance between public safety, commercial and recreational use of our waterways. To do this, we need to devote the time necessary to have a discussion with all interested parties and determine the appropriate course of action.”

The VRMC action partially accomplishes what DeSteph and a fellow Republican, Del. Jason Miyares of Virginia Beach, sought in a bill they had co-sponsored: SB 254. It proposed suspending until July 1, 2017, the assignment or transfer by the VRMC of general oyster grounds in the Lynnhaven River or its tributaries.

“My goal with introducing this legislation was to get this conversation started,” DeSteph said. He withdrew SB 254 on Thursday.

Miyares said, “Through the VMRC task force, I am confident we can create an appropriate balance among all stakeholders in the Lynnhaven River system for the betterment of our community.”

People who work in Virginia’s seafood industry were happy to see SB 298 withdrawn.

Lake Cowart is the owner of Cowart Seafood Corp. in Lottsburg, a community in Northumberland County, which borders the Chesapeake Bay. He said he knew SB 298 would never pass.

“To begin with, there’s not an acre of oyster lease in the state of Virginia that anybody would be willing to even pay $5,000 an acre in long term, much less $5,000 a year to lease one acre,” Cowart said. “It would put the oyster industry totally out of business. The number is so ridiculous it’s not even funny.”

Cowart said the VMRC task force has potential for allowing oyster growers and property owners to work out their differences.

“If in fact the VMRC can help the property owners and the oyster growers in Lynnhaven work through their problems, we shouldn’t have bills like this in the future,” Cowart said.

“The goal is for MRC to intervene, which it already has done, and set up a work group that can give and take, work out their differences. Not everyone is going to come away happy, but at least they’ll hopefully be happier than they were to start with.”

Capital News Service is a student-operated news reporting program sponsored by the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture at Virginia Commonwealth University.

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