Southold’s town code is currently silent on the matter of land-based aquaculture, a business model that is gaining traction worldwide as wild fish supplies dwindle and the costs of fishing rise.
That silence in the code created some trouble late last year when Laurel couple Tess and Todd Gordon told the town board they hoped to open the first-ever shrimp farm in Southold Town, with their eyes on a parcel in Peconic whose neighbors weren’t happy with the idea.
New York State’s Right-to-Farm law protects aquaculture, but Southold has since drafted some zoning restrictions that would prohibit aquaculture on parcels of less than seven acres, and would require buildings on a property used for agriculture to be set back 100 feet from the road and 200 feet from contiguous parcels of land.
The code change, which also defines land-based aquaculture, permits aquaculture in the light industrial, light industrial office and agricultural conservation districts.
Mariculture, which differs from aquaculture because it is dependent on the use of waterways surrounding the town, is already allowed as a special exception use in marine zoning districts, though people who want to open a new mariculture business need approval for the special exception use from the town’s zoning board.
The public gave the code change mixed reviews at a public hearing Sept. 8.
John and Margaret Skabry of Peconic, two of the most vocal opponents of the shrimp farm, pointed out in a letter to the board that, if the code is passed, the restrictions on aquaculture would be less stringent than those on mariculture because mariculture requires zoning board approval.
The town’s planning board recommended the setbacks in the new code be reduced to 50 feet if the contiguous parcel is protected or in agricultural use, but the town board opted not to take their suggestion.
Tess Gordon told the board that fish farming is not new to Long Island, and the Cold Spring Harbor fish hatchery has been raising trout for more than 100 years.
She described her project as sustainable and clean, and said she and her husband don’t use antibiotics or chemicals and they harvest the shrimp with nets. They intend to run a wholesale operation that delivers to local restaurants.
“It smells like the beach,” she added of her operation.
Karen Rivara, of Aeros Cultured Oyster Company in Southold, is also the president of the Long Island Farm Bureau.
She said she believes aquaculture should be allowed in more than three zoning districts, and added that, if these setback requirements were in effect when she began her business in 1996, her shellfish farm would not exist.
“Modern shellfish farms are essential,” she said. “This town should promote, not limit, innovative agricultural businesses.”
George Aldcroft of Peconic said he’s not opposed to aquaculture, but he doesn’t believe it should be done near peoples’ houses. He added that he believes there should be fences around aquaculture tanks just as fences are required around residential swimming pools.
Town Supervisor Scott Russell said the site in Peconic that the Gordons had been looking at would be eliminated from their consideration if the new law goes into effect because, at 470 wide at its widest point, the Gordons couldn’t meet the new setback requirements.
The Gordons had told the town board they were looking into using that parcel of land when asked by Councilwoman Jill Doherty at a work session last year whether they had a piece of land in mind. Mr. Russell has said since that he believes Ms. Doherty’s question was out-of-line in a discussion about the overall issue of the lack of reference to aquaculture in the town’s code.
He added that, while the state Department of Agriculture, architect of the Right to Farm Law, has recognized reasonable town restrictions in the past, it would likely fight the town’s attempts to enact stricter rules than the ones proposed.
John Skabry, visibly upset, said he believed Mr. Russell had engaged in backroom dealings with the Gordons and had kept information about the process from the public.
“I didn’t know you were going to be a partner in this endeavor, but it almost seems like you are,” he said.
Mr. Russell denied that accusation.
“Seven months [to draft the law] is hardly a fast track,” he said. “We have listened to you. We started with legislation that wasn’t at all restrictive — all of that is part of the process of listening to you. We tried to include that in the legislation we’re proposing.”
Mr. Russell added that processing of fish and shellfish will not be allowed in the AC zone.
North Fork Environmental Council President Bill Toedter said he believes the town should think broadly about all the possible future interpretations of aquaculture when drafting the law.
“Change is inevitable, and you have a tough job dealing with it,” he said. “Who’d have thought we’d have a plethora of corn mazes, greenhouses and vineyards. All of those, 50 years ago, were unthought of. In the past you haven’t taken enough time to think through everything and safeguard our communities and the environment. Take the time to think about this.”
Mr. Toedter added that there are many places where farmed, non-native fish and shellfish have gotten loose and disrupted the food chain in their new environment.
“When I see Pacific white shrimp, an alarm bell goes off,” he said. “It’s not native.”
Mr. Toedter added that Southold is facing both fresh water quality and quantity issues, and environmentalists are already working to limit the amount of human prescription drugs that end up in the aquifer.
He added that most preserved farmland in Southold was preserved to protect fertile ground — ground that would be of little use to an aquaculture operation.
Farmer Tom Stevenson of Orient said New York already places strict restrictions on aquaculture businesses.
“I’m here to support the town board in making it possible for the Gordons to at least be a test case in this town,” he said. “Knowing how regulated farming has become, we need to stay true to promoting it in Southold.”
“I’m not really worried about shrimps taking off and running into the bay, where they can’t even survive anyway,” he added. “It’s not tropical here.”
Southold Agricultural Advisory Committee Chairman Chris Baiz supported the law.
“A third of the land in Southold is tied up in agriculture and people want to keep it in agriculture, but it has to be economically viable agriculture,” he said. “According to the folks in Washington, DC, the eastern five towns of Suffolk County have the most expensive farmlands to operate on in the United States.”
Mr. Baiz added that only about 10 to 20 restaurants on the East End sell food at a high enough price point to buy the Gordons’ shrimp.
“My grandfather farmed potatoes here. He would fall over laughing if saw his farmland was now a vineyard and winery,” he said. “An acre of land would have a mortgage of $7,500 [per year]. You have can’t have $3,500 a year in proceeds from that acre and have a business.”
“The issues raised here tonight, the fears and anxieties, are in the extreme,” he said. “People in agriculture try to protect their land. They know how important that land is to them. Let’s just get this done.”
Margaret Skabry also said she believes the town hasn’t listened to her concerns.
“I don’t want to see anybody in this town treated as shabbily as we were being treated,” she said. “If somebody didn’t make a mistake and it didn’t hit the local newspaper, it would have been a done deal by now. I don’t care if it’s fish or pizza, if they’re coming in and want to use this type of land, make them use 10 acres.”
“You’re killing the area that’s drawing your potential worth,” she added. “There’s a subculture that’s only here to use and abuse the area. Your election’s coming up. I’m not threatening you, but think about why you’re up there.”
“Do it for us — there is room for business, but they’ll follow our rules,” she added. “Just treat us right. When they skip town, we’re where your money is, not these people that give you a little and take a lot.”
The board tabled the proposed law without holding a vote.