Tranquility Farm Lane, in St. Mary’s County, is tucked away from the bustle of the nearby naval base and ubiquitous strip malls. But the Patuxent River tributaries surrounding the dirt roads and cow pastures have been anything but quiet as an oyster war between shellfish farmers and prominent Southern Marylanders enters its third year.
Former bank executive Talmadge Petty, who owns Hollywood Oysters, moved to his family’s 300-acre farm in 2013 and began cultivating oysters on a lease on Hogg’s Neck Creek. At the time, he says, his three neighbors did not object. One of the neighbors is Sotterley, a restored early 18th-century plantation. The second is a Sotterley descendant, Gita Van Heerden. The third neighbor is the Liu family, which owns a forested parcel abutting Sotterley Creek, just upstream from Hogg’s Neck Creek.
The problems began when Petty applied for a few more acres, this time in Sotterley Creek, not only adjacent to the Liu property but also closer to the plantation house. The plantation’s staff and supporters say the “viewshed” is important for telling Sotterley’s story, particularly how slave ships came up from the Patuxent to support the landed gentry’s opulent lifestyle. A slave cabin remains on site, as does an African-American graveyard.
“You go out there, and you see this privileged white guy who has plunked down his oysters on what should be a memorial site,” Van Heerden said. “It is immoral, it is greedy, and it is everything that is wrong with America.”
All three parties contested Petty’s Sotterley Creek lease in court. But they lost, and the Department of Natural Resources, which represented Petty, issued the lease in conjunction with the Army Corps of Engineers in August 2016.
Van Heerden and the Lius are still appealing that case. Van Heerden’s attorney, Sam Baldwin Jr., insists that public investment in Sotterley and other national historic landmarks outweighs the public interest in promoting aquaculture — an argument he plans to make to the Court of Special Appeals. Van Heerden is also suing Petty over a right-of-way on the road they share. And she and the Lius, along with some watermen interested in clamming grounds, are also protesting two other leases Petty wants to acquire in the Patuxent itself.
Van Heerden’s grandmother, Mabel Satterlee Ingalls, was the last private owner of Sotterley and deeded it to the Historical Foundation when she died in 1993. It nearly shut down from a lack of funds to operate and maintain the house and grounds. In addition to the neighbors who supported the property, Congressman Steny Hoyer helped to secure funds, and state bond funds were also contributed. As the oldest continuously working plantation in the state, Sotterley has reckoned with its past, welcoming the descendants of slaves in plantation events and restoring the slave cabin.
Petty points out that Sotterley was once a working waterfront area with active oyster grounds and port activity that didn’t resemble today’s pristine view. “This is basically NIMBYism under the guise of history,” said Petty, who sells his oysters under the Sweet Jesus label. “It’s a real travesty.”
The battle might have been relegated to back road intrigue were it not for an attempt this winter to pass a bill in the Maryland General Assembly that would have forbidden oyster farms within 300 feet of viewsheds for all historic places. The idea for the bill came from Michael Whitson, a former president of Sotterley’s Board of Trustees.
Whitson, who lives in Southern Maryland, asked Baltimore County Del. Dana Stein to introduce the bill, which was later amended to include only National Historic Landmarks. There are about 70 in Maryland, but only two — Sotterley and Historic St. Mary’s City — are near waters suitable for growing oysters. At the House hearing, only Whitson, Stein and Stein’s aide testified in favor of the bill (H.B. 1284). Petty and his fellow oyster farmers learned about the bill after it passed 139-1. They mobilized to testify against it in the Senate, where it died in committee.
What the oyster farmers found particularly objectionable was the photo that Whitson used in the House hearing to show what the Sotterley Creek oyster operation would look like. The photo showed “floats” — oyster-growing cages that are suspended just below the surface from floating frames of PVC pipe. But Petty’s lease is for bottom cages — which, as the term suggests, sit on the creek’s bottom. The cages, which Petty deployed in December, are marked by small buoys that, in the bright sunlight, are barely visible from Sotterley’s main lawn.
Though his boats ply the creek daily in harvest season, retrieving oysters and maintaining the cages, Petty said the boats make only a few trips a day, between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. He also said he is willing to keep the boats out of the creek during special events and schoolchildren visits.
Had Stein known that cages like Petty’s were not visible, he said, he would have amended his bill to give historic property owners a veto only over aquaculture operations visible on the water’s surface.
Whitson said he proposed the bill because, simply put, national historic landmarks “are not places where [shellfish farming] should occur.”
But oyster aquaculture proponents in Maryland argue that the state has worked to clear a century’s worth of “barnacles” from its leasing laws, and it should not return to a time when influential homeowners could carve out exceptions. Maryland aquaculture has only 6,000 acres under lease, officials said, compared with Virginia’s more than 100,000 acres. A key difference between the states has been the seamless permit application in Virginia, where an oyster farmer can receive a permit in four months, instead of the year or more it takes in Maryland.
Much work goes into the lease process before a Maryland oyster farmer applies. The state and the Aquaculture Review Board help potential farmers choose sites away from natural oyster bars and that minimize impacts in public fishing areas. Once the application is submitted, the DNR identifies property owners through the public notice process and sends letters to waterfront homeowners adjacent to the lease. If the department decides to grant the lease, opponents can appeal, first to an administrative law judge and then to Circuit Court.
Determined opponents can significantly delay lease applications. In Maryland’s coastal bays, aspiring oyster farmers Don Marsh and Steve Gordon battled their neighbors for more than five years before they obtained shellfish leases. In Kent County, another startup aquaculturist, Scott Budden, had to compromise with watermen and duck hunters before he could put oysters in the water. It took four years.
The Army Corps received Petty’s lease application for submerged cages in February 2015. In January 2016, the Corps received a letter from Minority Whip Hoyer, reminding the agency of the federal money that had helped protect Sotterley, and asking to be apprised of the Corps’ review.
“We determined and documented that lease site was 2,500 feet from the home,” said Kathy Anderson, chief of Maryland’s southern section for the Corps regulatory branch. “In our coordination with the Maryland Historic Trust, they did not provide any further objections in our review process.”