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New Tool Helps Coastal Virginia Invest Wisely in Working Waterfronts

Access to the water is shrinking as historic access points become restricted, fall apart, or get sold. But before Virginia’s localities can start prioritizing and preserving working waterfronts, they need to know where these sites are.

Working waterfronts in Seaford, VA, captured during the 2012 working waterfront inventory. ©VASG

Working waterfront in Seaford, VA, captured during the 2012 working waterfront inventory. ©VASG

By Janet Krenn

Chad Ballard, owner of Cherrystone Aquafarms, can tell you where his company has been. He knows the ins and outs of its more than 100-year history on the Eastern Shore. But ask him where his business is going, and the answer isn’t quite as certain.

A few years ago, Ballard hoped to plant an additional 20 million clams by expanding his shellfish aquaculture operations along the seaside of the Eastern Shore, but he lost docking privileges at the nearest boat ramp when the Wise Point National Wildlife Refuge decided to phase out docking for commercial vessels.

“It’s their land; I understand that. But it’s put a damper on our ability to grow,” Ballard says. To have the growth he had planned without docking access at Wise Point, Ballard says he’d need to invest in diesel trucks and trailers to transport heavy boats and equipment from his bayside facility to the seaside. That would take an initial investment of around $200,000 with about another $30,000 annually to operate and maintain vehicles.

These challenges are not unique to Cherrystone Aquafarms or the clam farming industry. Access to the water is shrinking as historic access points become restricted, fall apart, or are sold. But before Virginia’s localities can start prioritizing and preserving working waterfronts, they need to know where these sites are. To conduct such an inventory, Tom Murray, the Virginia Sea Grant (VASG) Marine Extension Program Leader, teamed up with the Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program (VA CZM). When complete, the inventory will be a tool to promote economic sustainability in Virginia’s coastal communities.

A working waterfront is any waterfront property or facility that enables waterfront businesses to operate. Murray, who is also an economist at Virginia Institute of Marine Science, has been at the center of the working waterfronts movement for more than five years. In Virginia, he is credited with bringing together commercial and recreational users, who would normally compete with one another for space, to work together to preserve access for both interests. Today, working waterways and waterfronts is a national movement that has sparked collaboration between states and national legislation to preserve coastal business.

The working waterfronts inventory includes digital maps, photographs, and information about services, such as dockage and sewage, in waterfront facilities in Hampton Roads, the Northern Neck, the Middle Peninsula, and the Eastern Shore.

Murray says that despite a trend toward decreasing access, preliminary results suggest some redundancy among access sites. The discovery that multiple sites fill the same niche will enable localities to start making strategic decisions. Localities can use the inventory to prioritize investments for improvements that provide the most benefit to businesses. Investments might range from dredging and other waterway maintenance to bringing electricity or sewer service to a site.

Prioritizing public access points is especially important as private access decreases. For example, Doug Meredith of the Gloucester County Economic Development Department notes that within the past five years, two local seafood processors closed their doors when the owners passed away or retired. The loss of those waterfront facilities could have serious consequences for watermen who need access to processors located near their fishing sites.

“If you work in the Upper York, you’re not going to [the Lower York River] to off-load. The cost of fuel becomes inefficient for business,” says Meredith. Watermen “need short runs to break even. If they can’t get those runs, they can’t go out.” In other words, you need the right access sites in the right places.

Ballard’s company also relies on private landowners for access. He says that his crews have approximately 15 access points on private property throughout the Eastern Shore.

“We are working with a lot of great landowners that allow us to use their property to access the water,” says Ballard. “However, we are only able to operate on a small scale at those locations because of their residential nature.”

These private agreements work for now, but if the land is sold, it will be up to the future owners to decide whether he can do business there.

“To get the kind of access we truly need, you would have to build a good-size ramp with parking and docking,” Ballard says.

With the rising demand for coastal property, many aren’t optimistic that future private owners will be so willing to cooperate with businesses. According to U.S. census data, Virginia ranks in the top five states for coastal population increase. The population of coastal counties increased nearly 50% from 1980 to 2003, and more than 180,000 building permits were issued for single-family and multifamily residences in Virginia’s coastal counties from 1999 to 2003.

Maintaining working waterfronts is an upstream battle, but for coastal communities in Virginia, it is the key to maintaining economic diversity and balancing future development with current industry.

“Working watermen are an integral part to this economy and community,” says Meredith. “You certainly don’t want to kill historic industry in your county to get those developments.”