County commissioners are concerned about being cut out of decisionmaking regarding the oyster and clam leases earmarked for Alligator Harbor and Ockolockonee Bay

Gov. Rick Scott and his cabinet are poised to approve a major expansion of aquaculture leases in the easternmost waters off the Franklin County coast.

If they were looking for a rousing show of support from the county commissioners Tuesday, they were sorely disappointed.

Following up on a meeting he and Commission Chairman Smokey Parrish had with Kal Knickerbocker, director of the aquaculture division at the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, former county planner Alan Pierce shared with commissioners details regarding a 41-acre expansion of an existing oyster and clam lease site in Alligator Harbor, plus a new 131-acre lease area in the Ochlockonee Bay.

Because each individual lease covers about 1.5 acres, the proposed expansion in Alligator Harbor would yield 21 new leases, each available for about $70 per year, for 10 years. The 72 leases on the new site in Ochlockonee Bay, between Wakulla and Franklin counties, would run about $100 per year, also for 10 years.

The leases would include use of both the bottom and the full water column, and could be used to farm either oysters or clams.

No sooner had Pierce noted the portion of Knickerbocker’s report that noted “the proposed action is not subject to the local government planning process,” that the commissioners expressed their displeasure.

Commissioner Cheryl Sanders noted that when the initial 46 leases in Alligator Harbor were first approved more than a decade ago, county commissioners were given a say in the matter.

“What has changed in their (FDACS) mission?” she asked. “They would not proceed on aquaculture leases (before) until the board said they approved it.”

Sanders, who has long represented that portion of the county, also noted that Franklin County fishers got first preference during that initial period when the innovative farming concept was being introduced.

“These 41 leases need to be for 41 displaced oystermen,” she said. “They (the state) needs to know we are requesting that we have that preference. We want it to spill over on the 41 (new leases). It needs to have Franklin County folks given first preference.”

Parrish indicated his biggest concern, given the push by the state to expand oyster and clam farming, was that these new leases “be fully used before they go looking at Apalachicola Bay.

“To me, before they ask for anything else in Apalachicola Bay, these leases need to be fully utilized, and people in Franklin County need to be given preference for this,” he said.

Sanders said she liked the general idea, but had concerns on how it would be implemented, given the fact that there is limited dock space in Alligator Harbor, and access to Ochlocknee Bay also could pose problems.

“I’m opposed to using any open waters until we see if this works,” she said. “Let them know when this aquaculture lease program was first created, Franklin County folks got first preference and we need it extended to the other leases.”

Parrish said that with start-up costs running into tens of thousands of dollars, with no yield for at least the first year, he believed many local fishers would be hard-pressed to afford to go into business,

“The average oysterman doesn’t have $60,000 to get started,” he said.

“If you don’t (grant locals preference), the outsiders are going to get all the leases,” said Commissioner William Massey.

Parrish did note that he was pleased that the state, rather than the county, would be responsible for granting the leases. Even so, he said if problems arose, “they (the fishermen) are going to come down to this meeting and say the county allowed them to do it.

“I don’t want every lease they do coming here for county approval,” he said.

Commissioner Noah Lockley voiced his annoyance as well, and advocated the county ask that County Attorney Michael Shuler look into what legal options are available if the county moves to challenge the state on the new leases. That motion passed unanimously.

“That Knickerbocker man is going to do what he want to do anyway,” said Lockley.

As it stands now, three members of the governor’s cabinet will have to approve the leases, at a vote which will take place sometime after the comment period ends April 26.

One member of the cabinet, Agriculture Secretary Adam Putnam, who is running for governor, drew especially pointed criticism from commissioners.

“I’m just hoping that our future ag commissioner, that she will look at everything and look at the issues at hand,” said Sanders.

“That man (Putnam) ain’t been here in eight years,” said Lockley.

Sanders said that during an appearance before an earlier meeting of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission held in Apalachicola, Putnam declined to make an appearance before the county commission. His predecessor, Charles Bronson, made several appearances before the county commission during his tenure in office, including a farewell visit at the completion of his term.

“He (Putnam) wouldn’t come and address us,” Sanders said.

In a statement issued Thursday morning, Aaron Keller, FDACS press secretary. said the department will consider the community's needs as well as help those who work on the water.

"As the department always has, we welcome the feedback of all stakeholders when we’re considering new aquaculture lease areas or expanding existing aquaculture lease areas," he said. "Local interest and demand for aquaculture lease sites has exploded in the region, and the department will work to balance the needs of the local community while assisting those looking to make a living on the water in their communities.”