Guest column: Voice of a few caused loss to many
Residents of Alligator Point spread fears about declining property values and major fish kills in the bay to prevent the building of a shellfish hatchery. These fears may be valid, but are not due to the proposed facility, but rather because of housing development and the decline of the oyster industry in the county.
They spread fear and misinformation via online sites, direct mailings, and opinion letters published in the Apalachicola Times over the past few months. As the recipient of these false claims, I wanted to provide the facts and present the losses which the county will encounter with the absence of this facility.
After nearly 20 years of searching for an ideal location to set up a shellfish hatchery in the Panhandle region, a suitable location was found on Alligator Point. Once FDACS (Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs, Division of Aquaculture), which is the agency tasked with oversight of this industry, approved the suitability of this site, we were notified by Franklin County the zoning would need to be changed.
The current C-3 zoning would need to be changed to a less intensive classification of C-1. The allowable C-3 zoning uses in Franklin County are as follows:
-Boat Ramp and Marinas
-Restaurant and Food Services
The required C-1 uses are:
-Light Intensive Seafood Processing
-Docking and Landing Facilities for Commercial Fishing Boats
-Support Facilities including Boat Building, Marina Fueling, Marina Hardware, Net Weaving, Ice Making, Seafood Storage and Warehousing
-Marine Culture Shore Facilities including Shellfish Rearing and Fattening and Crab Culture
-Uses determined by Planning and Zoning Commission to be similar to the above
At the Nov. 19 county commission meeting, we were confronted by a few residents who live on Alligator Point who opposed this project. A summary of the Nov. 19 meeting was published on Nov. 20 in The Times titled “Alligator Point wary of oyster hatchery.” We decided to table to vote until the next meeting on Dec. 17 so each concern could be addressed.
\We reached out to the residents to ask for a list of concerns and even allowed them to visit another one of our sites in Cedar Key. It quickly became apparent they had no interest in resolving concerns and only wanted to find issues which could be used to prevent us from establishing a hatchery in Alligator Point.
Since the Nov. 19 meeting there have been three opinion letters published by the most vocal opponents to the project. Each of these letters contain false and defamatory statements which I would like to clarify with factual information as follows:
In the letter “Hatchery would destroy Alligator Point life,” (See Dec. 5, 2019 Times) it contains quotes including “pad their pockets,” “permanent destruction of Alligator Point,” “ugly, smelly, noisy industrial park,” “never hear the surf,” “no more stargazing,” “no more swimming in the bay,” “new commercial traffic,” “open dumpsters,” “vulture feeding,” “complete defilement and desecration of our once beautiful community,” “safety will be jeopardized,” and “home values will decrease.”
Each of these statements are false. This defamatory letter continues with additional incorrect statements meant to spread fear and scare residents into thinking this operation would destroy their way of life. The truth is a shellfish hatchery is completely dependent on pristine waters and would actually help to improve the water quality by circulating water flow, and adding dissolved oxygen which benefits fish and other organisms in the water. The oysters produced would benefit the environment by consuming algae which absorb nutrients such as nitrogen, aid in improving water clarity which promote growth of sea grasses, and sequester CO2 from the atmosphere which is converted to calcium carbonate used to form their shells.
The letter “Man, keep it just the way you have it” (See Times, Dec. 12, 2019) is written to describe why the proposed shellfish hatchery does not belong in a “residential neighborhood” and is only going to benefit the people involved with the project.
This letter also contains many false statements about potential issues which could pollute the bay. They do not mention that this property is currently zoned C-3 allowing more intensive uses. Additionally, “keep it just the way you have it” should be based on the long history of the oyster industry in the region. Many families have been dependent on oysters for generations as a way of life. These jobs and precious resources are disappearing at alarming rates and should be protected and not criticized.
The letter “Alligator Point residents asked to sacrifice for a developer” (See Times, Dec. 12, 2019) again contains several false statements and presents me as a developer whose only intent is to make a profit, with no regard to the health of the bay. It also focuses on the loss of property value in the area due to this business.
The irony with this letter is the fact that the author writing it is the former manager of several development companies only a few years ago. Regardless of his past business dealings, he should not post false statements meant to mislead his neighbors into believing this business would harm their property values and way of life.
I am also not a wealthy developer from Palm Beach with the intent to profit without any regard to the environment. I have been working in the environmental and aquaculture industries for over three decades. During my tenure working with an environmental firm, we installed and maintained remediation equipment used to remove hydrocarbon and other pollutants from gas stations, dry cleaners, refineries, and other superfund sites. After over a decade working in the environmental industry, I learned about the opportunity and benefits of the aquaculture industry and started a shellfish hatchery. I deeply care about the local health of the environment and would never intentionally do anything to harm this delicate resource. I have over two decades of experience working and building my aquaculture business and felt the Alligator Point location would have allowed me to provide a needed resource for the developing oyster aquaculture industry.
The one common theme about each of the letters and statements is the reduction of property values and diminishing water quality in the bay. This may be true because of the land development including septic tanks and nutrient runoff from homeowner lands. It is so important that the Governor of Florida appropriated $2.5 billion towards water quality issues soon after taking office last year. FWC has also recently been awarded $20 million to restore the Apalachicola Bay oyster population. There are numerous other projects currently being implemented around the state and the world to improve water quality problems and reducing Harmful Algae Blooms.
While these problems are serious, they are not caused by shellfish aquaculture developments; rather we are major part of the solution. Having a commercial shellfish facility would help aid in providing the much-needed seed to the emerging industry members and could also work with the existing research community to expand restoration projects within the county.
The proposed shellfish hatchery is viewed as a “low impact” commodity by FDACS. We are required to submit and follow stringent guidelines mandating compliance and safety of the environment. The shellfish industry is completely reliant on the water quality and environment for our livelihood. All of the accusations about how this hatchery will pollute the bay and release excessive algae causing mass fish kills or other catastrophic events to the bay are false and there are multiple safeguards to prevent this from happening.
We went over and above trying to address all of the issues raised by the residents such as noise, lighting, smell, algae releases, bleach or acid releases, etc. We even suggested that a specific use stipulation would be incorporated into the zoning change, eliminating the potential for this site used for other purposes in the future. But after all our attempts to address each issue, we were unsuccessful in our efforts to change the mind of a few neighbors who were ultimately opposed to our facility.
The benefits to the community and industry are widely posted online at sites such as shellfish.ifas.ufl.edu/environmental-benefits. Another major issue is the oyster industry members located in Franklin County are reliant on receiving “seed” to survive. There have been major seed shortages for these farmers as they have been reliant on seed provided by out-of-state or non-local sources. Our operation is the only shellfish hatchery in the state with multiple locations allowing for diversity, as well as having the ability to move seed if a weather event arises.
In addition, reducing reliance on out-of-state seed will only enhance the local economics of the industry and genetic gene pool of shellfish, therefore long-term survival of Franklin County wild and cultured shellfish stocks. I have over 23 years of experience as the owner/operator of shellfish hatcheries in Florida providing various species of shellfish for industry, research, and the restoration needs. We are not involved in any grow-out operations, as are many other seed suppliers, meaning we will not be competing with current growers, but hope to enable the local industry to expand.
In conclusion, it is unfortunate a few residents have caused the loss of these potential benefits for many people living in Franklin County. This facility would have created multiple direct and indirect jobs, helped to expand the emerging aquaculture industry allowing economic and environmental benefits, which would have increased tax revenue for the county. I hope the opponents are willing to pay additional taxes or offer local jobs to offset the losses they have caused in Franklin County. We have decided not to pursue building at this location because of the opposition and plan to look in another area of Florida where residents will welcome this opportunity to improve their community.
Tom McCrudden is president of the Great Florida Shellfish Company LLC