Legislator Bridget Fleming speaks to Legislator Al Krupski, left, during...

Legislator Bridget Fleming speaks to Legislator Al Krupski, left, during a meeting of the Suffolk County Legislature in Hauppauge Tuesday, March 20, 2018. Credit: Barry Sloan

It was a massive proposal to quadruple the 25,000 acres in Suffolk’s agricultural districts by adding 103,690 underwater acres — the bulk of Peconic, Gardiners  and Napeague bays — to protect a hardy handful of oyster farmers from nuisance lawsuits that might endanger their survival.

Backers, including the Long Island Farm Bureau and the Long Island Oyster Growers Association, said those involved in aquaculture need the same legal protection the state gives upland farmers. It would allow them to seek recovery of court costs, if lawsuits challenging their operations are found to be without merit because they are using accepted agricultural methods.

But County Executive Steve Bellone’s proposal, aimed at getting state Department of Agriculture and Markets approval for the expanded districts by next month's deadline, stalled in the county legislature’s environment committee Tuesday on a 5-2 vote — effectively killing it for now.

Some lawmakers expressed concern over the magnitude of the initiative, when only about 600 acres — scattered across the bays in 10-acre underwater sites — are currently being cultivated. Others worried that extending the agricultural district across the East End’s most scenic bays may affect boating, fishing and recreational use.

Mary Kate Guilfoyle, a Bellone spokeswoman, said the resolution was withdrawn, but will be resubmitted next year.

The controversy comes as the county is about to review the 10-year-old leasing program, required under state law, which ceded control of the bay bottom to Suffolk to promote aquaculture.  The aim has been to turn formerly unproductive bay bottom into a growing seafood industry that cannotbe an economic engine and help clean up the bays through the natural filtration systems of millions of seeded oysters. Yet even with an enlarged district, county planners only expect 600 additional acres to go into cultivation in the next decade. 

Legis. Bridget Fleming (D-Noyack), who made the tabling motion, said she fully supports the growing aquaculture industry, but said lawmakers must weigh the potential for “unintended consequences” such a huge change might entail. She said expansion of the agricultural districts into East End bays should be considered as part of the larger three-year review. That review could include dealing with potential conflicts between farmers and boaters.

The bid to extend protection comes after the 110-year-old Devon Yacht Club last November sued both the county as landlord and Amagansett Oyster Co., which last year began to cultivate two 10-acre sites near the club. Attorneys for the 350-member club said the operations “substantially interfere” with the club’s sailing classes and “infringes on their property rights.”

Before the committee vote, The Shelter Island Yacht Club commodore Bryan J. Carey asked lawmakers to put a moratorium on new leases until the 10-year review of the program is complete. “The development of new technologies including floating gear and expansive buoy systems present navigational hazards,” he  said, adding rules are needed to minimize the danger.

Karen Rivara, former farm bureau president who cultivates oysters on privately owned underwater land, said an agricultural district’s legal protections are needed to “level the playing field” for oyster farmers who often struggle to remain in business, much less battle in court.  “It takes up a lot of capital to answer a lawsuit . . . I’d rather spend on paying workers,” Rivara said.

However, Legis. Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) said the county has to be careful because farming done on private property is far different from cultivation under the water, where recreational activities bring in millions in tourism dollars and are also occurring on the surface. “It’s a unique situation on the water that’s completely different,” she said. “We’ve got to find a balance.”

But Chuck Westfall, president of the Long Island Oyster Growers Association, said the extent of bay cultivation is infinitesimal when compared with the size of the bays. He said there’s no record of navigation accidents and equipment poses no dangers.  “They want shoes, but they don’t want the cobblers,” he said after the tabling vote.

Rob Carpenter, the farm bureau’s executive director, said the issue of expanding the agricultural district to protect aquaculture should not be confused with the overall review of the leasing program. “They are separate issues,” he said. “Everyone should have access to use our waters, but that also includes agriculture.”