Oyster Farmer Faces Continued Battle Against York County

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Gregg Garrett Oyster Dock

Greg Garrett told the Virginia Free Citizen that local officials in York County are moving to shut down his oyster farm

York County oyster farmer Greg Garrett told the Virginia Free Citizen that local officials in York County are moving to shut down his oyster farm and remove the existing right to conduct agriculture on 5,000 to 7,500 other properties in York County. He believes the county’s actions are a response to the recent passage of House Bill 1089, which will protect aquaculture in Virginia as a form of agriculture.

Greg Garrett decided to start oyster farming about five and a half years ago because he wanted to do his part to help clean the Chesapeake Bay. One oyster is said to clean, or filter, up to 50 gallons of water a day. But little did Garrett know, for three years, he would be tangled up in lawsuits with his county government.

Garrett says he is a direct decedent of one of the founders of Yorktown, who was sent by the King of England to the New World. On his website, Garrett claims that his family has been growing oysters in the York River since 1620. Garrett stated in an email that he dedicates nine underwater acres leased by the state to his oyster operations and he ships his oysters to retailers all over the country.

He didn’t even eat oysters when he first started farming them, but his friends raved about his “forbidden” oysters’ flavor. He then decided to sell his oysters to restaurants, but first he had to obtain seven permits, leases, licenses and certifications from the state of Virginia, all of which he says he attained. He said he had no problems for two years. However, when he tried to get a business license, York County officials said he was required to have a special-use permit. Garrett said the county denied him both the business license and the special-use permit.

Greg Garrett oyster farm and wildlife“They (York County officials) said no, as a matter of fact, not only can you not have a business license, you need a special-use permit,” Garrett said. “Then we found out pretty quickly that they weren’t going to give us a special-use permit, which basically meant we would have to shut down the entire oyster farm.”

Garrett then sued York County for requiring him to obtain a special-use permit when his property is zoned for agriculture. Garrett won in circuit court, but when York County appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court, the county won.

“The Supreme Court (of Virginia) basically said cities and counties in Virginia have the right to zone the land in any way they want to,” Garrett said.

Garrett claims that York County officials changed the definition of livestock to exclude shellfish before the hearing, which he believes helped the county win its case in the Supreme Court of Virginia.

York County Attorney James Barnett says the zoning ordinance in Garrett’s district, which is zoned as Rural Residential (RR), has a provision that allows docking workboats and offloading seafood as part of a home occupation if a special-use permit is obtained.

Barnett said Garrett did not complete the special-use permit process.

According to Barnett, Garrett filed a motion for reconsideration, asking the Virginia Supreme Court to reconsider the case. However, Barnett said the Supreme Court decided to uphold its original verdict.

Garrett stated in an email that he reapplied for a special-use permit for his oyster farm in April of this year, and he said he is waiting to find out if his application will be accepted.

“Members of the board of supervisors have said many times that ‘Greg didn’t follow through with his special-use permit request, so how does he know that we would not approve it?’” Garrett stated. “I want to give them (board of supervisors) every opportunity to do the right thing, which unfortunately I have been conditioned to not expect, but I am hoping that they will surprise me this time.”

Garrett said York County Board of Supervisors Chairman Donald Wiggins, the only board of supervisors representative for Garrett’s district, has supported the anti-aquaculture measures in York County and has ignored Garrett’s requests to discuss the aquaculture dispute.

“Unfortunately, Don has chosen not to return my phone calls, not to return my emails, and basically not to be my representative,” Garrett said. “And when you only have one representative, and they won’t represent you, it’s pretty sad.”

However, the recent passage of HB1089 will ensure that aquaculture is legally considered as a type of agriculture in Virginia. HB1089 will create a standard definition of “agricultural products” in the Code of Virginia that includes aquaculture. The new law goes into effect on January 1, 2015.

Cleaning oysters

Oyster Farmer Working with Oysters

Del. Rick Morris, R-Carrollton, introduced HB1089.Garrett said he worked directly with Morris to advocate for the passage of HB1089 and talked to many other General Assembly members about the importance of the bill before its passage.

Although Morris does not represent Garrett’s district, Garrett said Morris has an interest in protecting agriculture in Virginia.

“He (Morris) recognized how unreasonable York County’s position was,” Garrett said. “Rick recognizes that the bay is important, that our rivers are important and that aquaculture is actually the most environmentally friendly farming that there is probably.”

Barnett said the General Assembly decided to give the bill a delayed effective date at the request of the county.

“(The General Assembly decided) they would give us time, even additional time beyond the normal effective date, so that we could do exactly what we’re getting ready to start doing,” Barnett said, “which is to look at our ordinances and decide what makes sense.”

Barnett said the county has relied on the special-use permit process for residential aquaculture to protect the county’s mostly residential waterfront. He said the county is considering agricultural rezoning because HB1089 will prohibit the county from regulating aquaculture on a case-by-case basis in agricultural zones.

“A lot of our shoreline is dotted with houses that are very close together,” Barnett said. “And that’s part of the reason why something like landing oysters from what could be hundreds of acres of oyster grounds is potentially problematic to somebody whose bedroom or kitchen window may be 15 or 20 feet away from the place where you’re landing and cleaning your oysters.”

Since the passage of HB1089, York County has filed a lawsuit against Garrett because he has continued his operations without a special-use permit.

“They’ve sued my wife and I to try to enforce what the Supreme Court did even though the state legislature came in and said we’re overruling that (the Supreme Court ruling) by voting 128 to 5,” Garrett said. “Their (the county officials’) lawsuit is an attempt to try to find me doing something wrong one more time.”

Garrett said the York County Board of Supervisors is now looking to rezone thousands of properties to prohibit agriculture on the properties.

“This is Yorktown. This is where freedom was won for all of America and they are looking at downzoning thousands of properties,” he said.

Garrett believes the implementation of downzoning would be devastating to local farmers in York County.

“If they pass the law that they’re talking about, (we) would not be able to grow agriculture anymore and the reason for that (agricultural downzoning) is, this new state law says if you can do agriculture, you can do aquaculture,” he said. “And they’re just so adamantly against aquaculture, more specifically they’re against my oysters.”

On May 14, the York County Planning Commission, which serves as an advisory body on development and planning issues for the York County Board of Supervisors, will hold its first public comment period to discuss whether to reduce agriculturally zoned properties in the county.

Garrett and other farm freedom advocates, who are “pro-agriculture, pro-freedom, pro-liberty and pro-property rights,” are planning to take part in a “pitchfork rally” outside of

York Hall at 6 p.m., before the 7 p.m. planning commission meeting.

Garrett said he advises anyone else who is affected by government abuse to look for allies to overcome their struggles.

“Look for people who will see your position as reasonable,” he said. “Look for people who will understand that the government is out of control and that they’re attempting to micromanage our lives here in America, which should not be happening.”

Kate Miller

About Kate Miller

Kate Miller is a multimedia journalist and graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University. She received a Bachelor of Science in Mass Communications with a broadcast journalism concentration. She attended Smith College in Massachusetts before attending VCU. This semester, she is reporting on the General Assembly for the VCU Capital News Service.