The NIMBY oyster people

Residents who live along the shore of Quiambaug Cove are opposing plans for a commercial oyster operation in the lower western section of the cove, seen Sept. 21, 2017. (Joe Wojtas/The Day)
Residents who live along the shore of Quiambaug Cove are opposing plans for a commercial oyster operation in the lower western section of the cove, seen Sept. 21, 2017. (Joe Wojtas/The Day)

I have covered, over the years, a lot of animated public hearings, more than I could ever count, in which neighbors turned out to protest things they wanted to stop: all kinds of egregious development, buildings too big, lights too bright, too much parking, too much traffic or general commercial sprawl.

I don't think, though, I have ever seen such a whiny, self-satisfied and selfish group as those, many of them waterfront property owners, who have been turning out to protest a proposed oyster bed in Stonington's Quiambaug Cove.

And honestly, I can't ever remember such a big crowd — the meeting filled much of the Mystic Middle School cafeteria — turning out to protest such a benign and simple proposal.

Evidently, the Not In My Backyard, or NIMBY, factor gets a big multiplier when applied to people who own waterfront property. And that's interesting, because it's not really their backyard.

We all own the water.

They are lawyering up, too. At least two lawyers were working the meeting, and correspondence from others was read into the record. There is evidently good lawyering money to be made in protesting oysters.

Two people did bravely speak up to endorse the idea of reviving the long tradition of working the waters of this saltwater cove, but the angry mob was having none of it.

Before I address their hysteria over the idea of growing oysters in the public waters of Quiambaug, let me explain what is being proposed.

As the applicant, a young man with a degree from the University of Connecticut and trained in the developing oyster industry of Fishers Island, noted in his presentation, there will be no mechanical gear placed in the cove.

The bottom of a portion of the cove would be used to nurture juvenile oysters until they can be moved to cages in deeper waters of Fishers Island Sound to mature.

The only thing anyone will see on Quiambaug Cove, the applicant, Dana Lewis, told the crowd, would be him, mucking around in the shallow water, pulling a small skiff, a few days a week.

That's it.

To stop it, these people are apparently prepared to wage a huge legal battle, which eventually could cost everyone in town money.

I live not too far from the cove, and I can't think of anything more wonderful than the idea of seeing a commercial fisherman at work out there, making a living, helping to revive a fine tradition in this saltwater community.

What better business could the town help cultivate? Never mind that it is environmentally beneficial. The oysters help clean the water.

Outside the meeting, I ran into David Rathbun, the owner of what may be one of the larger properties on Cove Road, the charming coveside Wehpittituck Farm, which, by the way, operates an excellent farm stand, with fresh produce, eggs and flowers, one of the most nutritious and scenic stops in town.

Rathbun, who is not a young man, told me his great grandfather, Warren Prentice Rathbun, used to harvest oysters from Quiambaug Cove. He was puzzled by the opposition from people who must seem to him like newcomers to the neighborhood, even the ones boasting they've been there for decades.

He also has a quick answer for those who suggest his ancestor wasn't running a commercial oyster farm.

"Well, he wasn't eating them all himself," he said.

The points made in opposition ranged from the preposterous to the absurd.

One Cove Road resident used an arbitrary 5 percent decline in property values to suggest the combined loss for cove property owners would be $2 million if oystering is allowed.

Really? That loss would occur because one guy is, from time to time, pulling a skiff on water located between two big noise makers, the railroad line carrying Northeast Corridor trains and Route 1?

Others said it would be the beginning of a wave of commercialization of the cove. One gentleman said it could stir up long-dormant industrial pollution that could have migrated from a factory on the other side of the peninsula. You can't make this up.

The most offensive complaint I heard, made frequently in the comments, was that the applicant is not a taxpayer. Turns out this isn't true, since he said later he owns property on nearby Lords Point.

But since when do taxpayers have more say in our democracy than those who don't own land or pay taxes?

Two points raised by protesting neighbors — the possible impact on any existing eel grass or scallop population — should be more fully addressed by the applicant, members of the Shellfish Commission told Lewis. He has said there would be no impact.

In the end, the commission asked Lewis to return with a combined application that also would include the facility he plans to use to bring the oysters to maturity, off Masons Island.

That new application eventually will lead to a full public hearing, which no doubt will draw more complaining neighbors and their hungry lawyers, oyster slayers.

I would urge others to add their voices to the call to let the oyster industry grow again in Stonington. You can raise chickens and grow corn anywhere in Connecticut, but there aren't so many saltwater coves.

Wouldn't it be great to someday order a big plate of freshly shucked Quiambaug Cove oysters in one of Stonington's fine restaurants?

Avalonia Land Conservancy maintains a spectacular preserve alongside the cove where Lewis wants to farm. Knox Preserve, just off Route 1 on Wilcox Road, has trails along the cove, looking out to the Sound, and through wide meadows where  purple martins nest.

Have a visit. Hike. Launch a kayak. Wave to the homeowners nearby who claim that they are trying to save the water for public recreation and protect it from the terrifying onslaught of oysters.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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