BAR HARBOR — The Department of Marine Resources on Sept. 1 granted a 10-year aquaculture lease to Bar Harbor Oyster Co. to raise American and European oysters on 22 acres in Thomas Bay.
The application was filed last summer by Joanna Walls and Jesse Fogg of Salisbury Cove, who operate under the limited liability corporation Bar Harbor Oyster Co.
The two lease sites included an eight-acre rectangle and 16.5-acre parcel located between Israel Point and the western shore and Thomas Island, east of the Trenton Bridge.
Like the nearby Goose Cove oyster farm west of the Trenton Bridge, this project has been a source of contention between the farmers and nearby residents over concerns about how the farm will affect the bay.
In response to the Bar Harbor Oyster Co. proposal, about 18 residents of the Thundermist Road subdivision on Israel Point formed a group called Friends of Thomas Bay.
That group strongly opposed the oyster farm, predicting it would cause a host of problems in the area, impeding recreation and navigation and creating light and noise pollution.
DMR held a public hearing in July at which residents expressed their concerns.
“Thomas Bay is calm and ideal for paddle sports,” area resident Glenn Milligan said. “The farm is the perfect way to block us when we launch at Israel Point and head around Thomas Island.
“(In July) I did not find it trivial to navigate around the existing floats that are part of these operations.”
At the hearing, the DMR did not allow discussion of the issues regarding the proximity of the oyster farm to the Hancock County-Bar Harbor Airport, saying it was the Federal Aviation Administration’s jurisdiction.
According to DMR’s decision, all of the Friends of Thomas Bay group’s concerns were minimal.
“The main concerns that were voiced by the Friends of Thomas Bay pertinent to DMR criteria were riparian access and recreational use overlap, and after hearing all the evidence and hearing testimony from the applicants and from kayaking experts, as well as assessing the distance from the shore of the proposed site, the DMR found that the lease would not unduly interfere with either recreational uses in the area or riparian access to the navigational channel,” DMR spokesman Jeff Nichols said by email.
In response to the decision, the Friends of Thomas Bay said DMR “failed to act in the interest of public safety” and that it is a conflict of interest for the agency, which promotes aquaculture, to grant such permits.
“Maine DMR has failed to provide equal protection under the law. They refused to place the same operating restrictions on the Thomas Bay proposal that they applied to the Goose Cove permit,” the group said in a prepared statement. “At the [July] public hearing, DMR staff themselves played a strong advocacy role for the proposal. It was clear from the nature of their own presentation that they had already decided in favor of the proposal.”
The Friends of Thomas Bay said the agency should cease granting permits due to its conflict of interest.
“DMR is structured both as agency to promote aquaculture and as the regulatory arm,” the statement reads. “That is a flawed governmental structure that the state should not tolerate.”
While Bar Harbor Oyster Co. has cleared the DMR hurdle, it will need another permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which will consult with the FAA because of the lease sites’ proximity to the Hancock County-Bar Harbor Airport in Trenton.
The FAA recommends a five-mile distance between the end of the runway and a “hazardous wildlife attractant.”
Opponents of the oyster farm say the cages will attract seabirds, which could then pose a danger to planes during takeoff and landing.
If the permit process for the Goose Cove farm is any indication, it could be years before Bar Harbor Oyster Co. is in operation.
Warren Pettegrow, operating the Goose Cove oyster farm as Acadia Sea Farms, was granted a lease for two 25-acre parcels by the DMR in 2012.
He received approval from the FAA in 2015, but faced opposition from the Hancock County Commissioners and airport officials.
Last March, the corps upheld its decision to grant the permit. The first of Acadia Sea Farms’ cages were dropped in the water earlier this summer.
Additional reporting by Liz Graves.