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VCPC project offers student insight into user-conflicts in Virginia’s working waterfronts

Mid October, 2016: Noah Trombly, along with two of his peers, exited their car near the Ware River. A man named Burke King, who owned a home right on the edge of the Ware, greeted them. From his front porch, Mr. King enjoyed a beautiful view of the river, but just across the way, an oyster harvesting company’s docks were busy with boats, workers cleaning oysters, and others hauling cages out to drop in the water. To homeowners like Mr. King, the level of activity was an unwelcome intrusion.

“This was a classic example of a land use conflict,” says Trombly, a second-year William & Mary law student who has been working on a case study of use-conflicts involving aquaculture on Virginia’s coasts with the Virginia Coastal Policy Center (VCPC) since 2016. “There is a problem between the homeowners and the commercial aquaculture,” he explains. “Neither has broken the law, but they are in conflict.”

Mr. King took Trombly and his fellow students on a boat tour of the river. While cruising, Trombly noted many partially-submerged oyster harvesting cages that restricted navigation. For his VCPC project, Trombly was primarily concerned with the Lynnhaven River, but the Ware provided a great example of the use-conflicts he was studying For example, like the Ware River, the Lynnhaven was once renowned for oyster farming.

Years ago the Lynnhaven riverbed was covered with oysters that were said to be as large as dinner plates, and people from across the eastern seaboard would visit to consume this delicacy. The bounty was not to last however. In the 1930s, poor water quality led to such high bacterial levels that the Virginia Department of Health restricted use of major sections of the river, and the shellfish were considered too dangerous to eat.

For almost a century, the Lynnhaven went unused by oystermen, its waters too polluted for anyone to consume the amount of shellfish it still produced. Families moved in along the shoreline, and enjoyed the peace of the river. Then, fifteen years ago, nonprofit organizations and other groups began restoration efforts to improve the river’s water quality. By 2007, the river’s water quality had improved enough to reopen 1,462 acres for shellfish harvesting. Commercial watermen began working on the Lynnhaven once more, but the families who lived next to these increasing aquaculture activities were unused to the new sights, sounds, and smells on the river. They opposed the exposed oyster cages which now peppered the water and presented a potential challenge to people boating or swimming in the river.

“Neither party has done anything wrong.” Noah explained. The oystermen went to great lengths to procure a permit to harvest oysters in these waters. “Their livelihood relies on this longstanding tradition of historic aquaculture,” Trombly says. “Meanwhile, the homeowners found the oystermen’s work smelly, noisy, and dangerous.” During the fall 2016 semester with VCPC, Trombly and his peers began studying the laws and policies that gave rise to this conflict.

“What was great about this project was that it served as an outstanding learning experience. It gave me a chance to understand how law and policy affect real people,” he added. “These issues are important to both sides, and I got to meet and interact with the people to whom it actually matters.” Trombly and his fellow students spent several months interviewing representatives from the Virginia Marine Resources Commission that work with local government officials, as well as staff of planning district commissions, homeowners, oyster farmers, and a state legislator. They used their legal background to research the laws and policies in place to evaluate solutions that would work for both groups.

Trombly and his peers presented their findings at VCPC’s annual conference themed “Living With the Water: Too Much, and Too Little.”  They used this as an opportunity to demonstrate the issues facing Virginia’s working waterfronts by delivering a presentation titled “Working Waterfronts: On History, Conflicts, and Finding a Balance.” While there is no easy answer to use-conflicts such as this, Trombly and his group were able to recommend that the Virginia codes be updated so that homeowners were directly notified when new harvesters were moving into the areas where they lived. The goal is to continue to encourage sound aquaculture practices that benefit both the environment and the economy, but to also get homeowners involved in the process of issuing commercial permits, so that they could have a say in how the land around these waterfronts was being used.

“For a law student, this was a great learning experience. It let me get a feel for issues a lawyer could face in the policy arena, and experience the ways in which we can use our skills outside of the classroom to help real people,” Trombly notes. Final touches are being made on his project team’s white paper, which will give their recommendations on how the issue should be handled. “All in all, it was just a really interesting project, and not only enjoyable to work on, but I think it will be really helpful for any future projects I do,” adds Trombly.

Noah Trombly-2
Above: Noah Trombly outside the Earl Greg Swem Library. Photo credit VASG/Ian Vorster.
Top: Watermen depart the James River Marina early one morning to harvest oysters. Photo credit VASG/Dennis Quigley.