Crawfordville businessman Chris Langston’s multi-pronged partnership with Apalachicola to secure a mining lease in Tate’s Hell State Forest, and then truck the fossilized shell to Battery Park to load onto barges, was not given a complete cold shoulder from city officials at a special meeting Friday afternoon, nor did it receive a warm embrace.
Instead, it got a definite maybe, a clear “we’ll see,” a call for more study by city staff.
Nearly a year after he secured a loosely defined letter of intent from commissioners, in Feb. 2018, that the city was interested in leasing him a portion of Battery Park for “stockpiling and loading fossilized shell for oyster-bed replanting,” Langston, in suit and tie, presented a more detailed, but not fully fleshed-out, outline of his plans before a rapt audience in commission chambers, a couple hundred yards from where the loading operation would be staged.
Seated next to him was Joe Shields, a former staffer in the aquaculture division of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, who now works as a private sector consultant with his newly created company, Restore and Submerged Lands Consulting, LLC.
Listening to the proposal from Langston’s Coastal Environmental Management (CEM) company were four members of the city commission, with Commissioner Brenda Ash absent.
“This is a partnership we believe will be mutually beneficial,” said Shields, who handled the initial presentation, projected as a Power Point on the wall. “It’s a minor effort from the city with a major monetary benefit for the city.”
He broke down the plan into three components, which consisted of securing the city’s help in obtaining the mining lease, its agreement to allow for a staging area at Battery Park to unload the rock onto barges, and its support for a Triumph application Langston is putting together to help create an 850-acre artificial reef about eight miles southeast of Sikes Cut.
Shields said the staging area would be about 200 feet by 200 feet, fenced off and secured for a portion of the year, for a fee of $5,000 per month during the company’s months of operation.
“It’s the same area as the Army Corps of Engineers uses for dredging of the intercostal,” he said. “Their pipes are out there right now.”
Shields said there would be “nothing before sunrise, nothing after sunset (and) nothing during special events” such as the Florida Seafood Festival, nor during dredging.
Langston stressed the city would be completely indemnified, and provided commissioners with a draft of a proposed hold harmless agreement.
“The onus would be on Coastal Environmental Management to provide a safe working environment for their employees,” he said. “There would be no potential for any type of lawsuits (against the city).”
Shields then spoke of the proposed reef, already permitted by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. He said the one nautical mile by one nautical mile area would be one of the largest reefs in the area, and that the company would be willing to provide the 30,000 tons of rip rap for it.
Langston sought, and unanimously received an endorsement of, a letter of support from the city for his requesting Triumph funds earmarked for projects for the area. Shields said that if approved the city would be administrator of the Triumph funds, in exchange for 3 percent of the gross project costs.
“This would be a huge boost to the economy, for both commercial and recreational fishermen, and for hotels and restaurants,” he said. “Additionally all the employees who work at these places would benefit.”
In terms of the lease on state lands to mine fossilized cultch, Shields said the city would negotiate royalties with the state to mine, and that the city would sublease land to CEM, with all this bureaucratic work handled by CEM and City Manager Ron Nalley. Langston’s proposal says, by way of example, that the state and city could split a 10 percent royalty.
“The city would get donated volumes of fossilized shell for small scale cultch projects,” Shields said.
The proposal went even further than just a donation, of up to 1,500 tons annually, for shelling programs; it proposed to handle such shelling entirely, under the auspices of the city.
“The state no longer has a locally based program for shelling, it’s left to the counties,” said Shields, who used to work in administering the state’s shelling program.
He said prior to 1910, the county had a flat deck barge and people would go out and hand shovel the shells back into the bay.
“Today the technology is better,” Shields said. “The material that will be mined is better.”
Shields noted that the state has turned over oyster licensing to the city, evidently unaware that at last week’s meeting, city commissioners voted unanimously to ask the state to take back the program, citing additional responsibilities added to their duties.
While the city does receive an administrative fee for each license sold, this year’s number of licenses is 467, roughly one-fourth of the total six years ago, from which there has been a steady annual decline, the most precipitous being one year ago.
Shields said that if the city took control of the program, funded by license fees, it could replenish at reefs at the local level, with fossilized shell mined locally.
“I was with the state doing restorative activities for the better part of a decade. I’ve seen restorative materials; this is the preferred material,” he said, noting that its weight provides a more stable platform, and that its size creates interstitial space for spat to land on, or for invertebrates to evade predation.
Shields said it was the same material that has been used in waters off Mississippi and Alabama. “The city would have input where this material goes,” he said. “This would be a huge job creator for the oystermen in this community. This partnership would enable future restoration projects as well.
“It’s out of someone else’s hands,” he said. “it’s in your hands, you control it.”
Nalley told commissioners that while an official request hasn’t yet been made to the state, “we’re discussing the need to turn this program back over to the state, but that doesn’t mean we'll be successful in the statute change.”
City Attorney Pat Floyd said that the oyster licensing program was taken on due to a state offer. “It was never something accepted by Apalachicola that we would do anything in terms of restoration,” he said. “We certainly would love if we have the expertise and the muscle to do that. We certainly do not. It’s never been something we offered or intended to do. Or that the city of Apalachicola would perform that task for the state of Florida.”
City Commissioner Anita Grove led the questioning of Langston’s proposal, beginning by stressing that the city was not pursuing money for oyster reef restoration.
“I don’t see us being the vehicle and having the expertise to select the sites and have the material and have the staff,” she said. “I think that’s an assumption that’s erroneous. I don’t see us being the cog that makes this whole thing turn. I feel like we're the wrong body to be considering oyster restoration.”
Langston countered that “I see us as being the ones, What I’m trying to show is a united effort. We’ve talked about the oyster habitat since 2012, and the state’s come up with an epic failure.
“My partners and I are willing to put forth the effort,” he said. “I’m trying to provide you the assistance and manpower that you say you didn’t have.”
Langston faced a multitude of questions about what materials would be used where, and how much of, and where else it would be going, and he offered only general details on specifics.
In the absence of these details, Grove was reluctant to grant support.
“I’d feel better if we (already) have a Triumph grant and an agreement with the state,” she said.
“Tou have to start somewhere,” Langston said. “That’s where we’re at right now.
“What I’m trying to do is incentivize the city so they can generate some revenue and lower you guys’ taxes,” he said. “I don’t have any material to see right now.”
Langston noted that his father, Gene Langston, has a history of business development in the county, including a role in developing portions of St. George Island.
“The history is here for me as well,” he said.
Charles Wilson, a longtime fisherman and now charter captain, took issue with the value of the material being mined for generating successful oyster reef growth.
“This junk out of Tate’s hell ain't our hope,” he said. “You got to do it with something native to the bay.”
Shannon Hartsfield, president of the Franklin County Seafood Works Association, and active with the SMARRT group helping shape policy for the bay, strongly disagreed. “chesapeake Bay was rebuilt with fossilized rock,” he said. “They bought more stuff that’s fossilized and they’re doing really good right now. They spent millions and they rebuilt their bay.”
He said that when the state first proposed using it in the bay, he was against the idea, but that he has followed studies first-hand that have shown succesS and “changed my whole attitude towards it.
“The biggest issue is it’s heavy, it’s hard to move, but it grows oysters,” Hartsfield said, noting Louisans and Texas have both restored their bays with it. “They were finding more oysters on the fossilized shell underneath the (top layer) of shell. Everywhere we put it, it growed.
“Our biggest issue has been lack of freshwater. Hopefully this summer we’ll see a lot of life in the bay,” he said, pledging that the SMARRT group of seafood industry insiders was committed to remaining a part of the decisionmaking where to place the material.
“The city stepped up in 2012, I’m hoping this bay comes back and it gets rebuilt right,” Hartsfield said. “The county has not done as much as you all have as far as the seafood industry. I’m hoping we figure out what the city can do to make it happen; this SMARRT group will support you all.”
Grove was also pressed for specifics regarding the timing and terms of the lease for a barge loading site at Battery Park.
“You could load those shells and re-shell the bay from anywhere,” she said. Langston said he was also considering sites at St. Marks and Port St Joe.
Responding to charges from speakers that the trucks would tear up streets already in need of repair. Langston said loads would be well within what is legally allowed on the road. “We’re going to be hauling less than half of that, simply because of the size of that material,” he said. “This material is very difficult to haul.”
He said details of the fencing and of specific times would be forthcoming, but as of now. “we’re simply asking the city to participate. I’m going to doing all the legwork. I’m trying to show support and a unified effort. If I’m able to get to the governor and the cabinet, when I get to them and they look at me and ask ‘Do I have local support?’
“It makes it much easier for me to obtain the lease. I’m trying to spread the wealth out as much as possible,” Langston said.
Diane Brwer was among those who spoke, telling Langston “there are other uses and other needs of this city than to lease a convenient barging space for your multi county operation. The needs of Apalachicola need to be considered.
“A lease of indefinite time is really of grave concern,” she said. “There are other goals the city may have for that premier site for our city.”
Robert Lindsley pressed Langston on specifics of indemnification, asking whether it would be “strictly based on the solvency of you and your partners,” and he promised to provide a bond for the city.
The length of the Battery Park lease could be done in two five-year increments, Langston said.
The views from the audiences ranged from a go-slow approach to outright opposition, with some decrying the harm trucking would do to roadways. “Your operation would be a blight on the Florida Seafood Festival,” said Gene Smith. “It would be very inappropriate.”
Grayson Shepard, who started the process to secure the artificial reef two years ago, stressed that it would be permitted under the auspices of the county.
“Boulders would be better than sand,” he said. “Loading it all right here, that seems to be a problem.”
Bobby Miller told the commissioners “the reef will get done one way or another.
“Stop, slow down, look at this thing,” he said. “Don’t you have enough issues in the city without getting involved?”
Commissioner Jimmy Elliott backed granting the Battery Park lease. “We’ve had the same opposition over (projects) in the five years, and we’ve lost business for the city,” he said. “You’ve given the city an opportunity.
“If we run businesses off, they (the state) are not going to be willing to help us at all,” he said. “I’d rather you stay the course.
“I’ve seen barge operations here all my life,” he said, noting how he and his friends would play on the piles. “It’s a wonder we weren’t smothered to death by landslides. Let’s not run away from opportunities and let’s not be so quick to run opportunities away.”
“People who come here with a nice big retirement they don’t have to worry about jobs,” Elliott said.
After voting to provide the letter of support for a Triumph grant, the commissioners all agreed to refer the matt to city staff and the appropriate committees and boards, such as planning and zoning.
“There are details that need to be provided that scare some of the people what’s going to be done,” said Floyd. “We say give us the details before we approve what you’re talking about.”