Legislation that would ban aquaculture operations within 1,000 feet of the mean high tide line will likely be substantially modified to center in on the Sakonnet River, where two Little Compton …
Legislation that would ban aquaculture operations within 1,000 feet of the mean high tide line will likely be substantially modified to center in on the Sakonnet River, where two Little Compton brothers who hope to develop a small oyster farm off Seapowet Avenue in Tiverton have met fierce opposition from local opponents.
The legislation, H8244, submitted by Rep. John Edwards, was first heard in the House Corporations subcommittee last Tuesday. As written, the bill would ban aquaculture operations within that 1,000 foot buffer anywhere in the state, and would not affect pre-existing operations or those in the application/approval stage.
But Rep. Edwards told committee members Thursday that he intends to revise the bill to narrow its focus to the Sakonnet River, exempt only those aquaculture operations that have already been approved by the state, and establish a four to five year 'pilot program' along the Sakonnet, to see what affect the bill, if passed into law, has. That pilot program would be overseen by the state Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC), he said.
At Tuesday's hearing, Rep. Edwards acknowledged that his original bill was "grossly and overly broad," and said it was never intended to regulate aquaculture operations statewide — just along the Sakonnet.
"I like having oyster farms and shellfish farms in our bay," he said. But "we don't want them right up on the shore."
Locally, he said, the bill would give the public "the opportunity to use their constitutional right of access to the water and not have it obstructed by a commercial operation."
If passed into law with the proposed amendments, the legislation would kill the proposal by Little Compton residents John and Patrick Bowen to develop a small oyster farm just southwest of the Seapowet bridge.
The brothers, who two years ago applied for a aquaculture lease with the state Coastal Resources Management Council, said at Tuesday's hearing that the bill is grossly unfair and "attempts to codify the 'Not In My Backyard' principle into state law."
"Often we hear the statement, 'We all like aquaculture, we all like oysters, just not there,'" he said. "Often the most wealthy, and sometimes newcomers to a community they have recently discovered, are well-prepared, financially and otherwise, to fight to maintain what they believe to be theirs."
But "the coastal waters of Rhode Island belong to the state, not to those who live on the waterfront."
Bowen, who said he and his brothers are lifelong and proud members of the community, urged legislators to reject the proposed legislation and see it for what he said it is: "An attempt by the wealthy to control what they don't own."
At Monday night's meeting, members of the Tiverton Council voted to support the bill, though it was unclear if that support extended to the proposed changes as well.
However, at least one councilor who said he is supportive overall of restrictions said he doesn't like the Sakonnet River-centric nature of the proposed changes.
"One of the caveats is that it would only apply to the Sakonnet River watershed and it will establish a four-to-five-year pilot program, which is not at all what most of the stakeholders that were opposed to these things had in mind," councilor Jay Edwards said.
"It makes it seems that this bill is a ‘Not In My Backyard’ bill. That’s what I don’t like about it. The rest of it I like, but I have a problem with that portion of it."
It is unclear what will happen next. In a letter to the council, Rep. Edwards wrote that with the legislative session drawing to a close soon, Tiverton officials should reach out to local senators and ask that a companion bill be drafted and submitted as soon as possible.
He also suggested that Tiverton officials reach out to their counterparts in Portsmouth, Little Compton, Middletown and Newport, and request letters of support for the legislation.
— With council reports by Ruth Rasmussen