Aquinnah selectmen split over oyster farm lease

In a split decision, Aquinnah selectmen voted 2-1 last week to allow Roxane “Johnnie” Ackerman to continue to raise oysters on Menemsha Pond. Tuesday’s vote by the three-member board of selectmen reversed an earlier unanimous vote to revoke Ms. Ackerman’s aquaculture lease.

In April, the selectmen sent Ms. Ackerman a letter by registered mail that said the condition of her equipment was a clear violation of her lease and would no longer be tolerated. In June, the board sent her a registered letter revoking her five-year lease and ordering her to remove all gear and restore the beaches.

Last week, selectmen James Newman and Spencer Booker were in a more forgiving mood. Selectman Camille Rose, chairman, was not. All agreed that the condition of the pond and shoreline was not acceptable.

The pond was the site of an ambitious project to raise oysters that began with the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) in 2002. For years, rafts of tribe-owned black plastic grow bags and a work barge floating in Menemsha Pond generated complaints from property owners.

The scattered debris cost the town $64,000 in lost tax revenue, because private property values were reduced to compensate landowners who couldn’t enjoy their beaches.

On September 20, a Times reporter observed more than 120 heavy mesh oyster grow bags on the shore and marshland. In the shallow water, hundreds more were piled in disorderly heaps.

Responsibility for the mess remains murky, lost in the depths of the small town’s politics and personal relationships.

On October 6, a contractor was to begin removing all the aquaculture equipment for disposal, at a cost to taxpayers of about $3,000.

But at the selectmen’s meeting on October 5, Ms. Ackerman, accompanied by her son Durwood Vanderhoop, a grantsman and planner for the Wampanoag Tribe, argued her case and won more time.

Ms. Ackerman said she didn’t get the first registered letter. “I don’t remember receiving that,” Ms. Ackerman told selectmen. “I have made every effort. I was so shocked and so disappointed that that was where we were. I feel like I’ve responded to everything. It’s a great project, it’s a great life for me.”

Despite a photographic record of the disarray, including photos Mr. Newman took and presented, Ms. Ackerman insisted that her oyster-farming operation was kept orderly throughout the summer. She said if selectmen inspected the site at that moment, they would find only a few oyster bags washed ashore.

“Then all the photographs we’ve seen don’t exist?” Ms. Rose asked.

Ms. Ackerman repeatedly asked selectmen to work with her in cleaning up the site. “You have to give me due process,” she said.

“If something washes up, or somebody has an issue, she needs to get a call,” Mr. Vanderhoop said.

Vote, unvote

There was no disagreement about the condition of the aquaculture operation among selectmen. “When I last saw it, there were dozens of bags stacked up,” Mr. Newman said. “Many of them had the remnants of dead oysters in them. That’s not acceptable on other people’s property.”

“We don’t want to have to go down there and take pictures,” Mr. Booker, a tribal member, said. “We want the work to be done, and we don’t want to have any complaints from abutters. That’s what we’re looking for. That’s not what’s happening.”

“She has been warned repeatedly for six months, and it wasn’t done,” Ms. Rose said. “It was totally disrespectful. I have no reason to believe, I don’t think anyone has reason to believe, she will ever keep it in good condition.”

Mr. Newman made a motion to reinstate Ms. Ackerman’s lease, with a six-month probationary period.

“It’s somebody’s livelihood,” Mr. Newman said. “I would rather at least give Roxane a chance to get her act together. I think that Roxane realizes now that we’re serious about that, and that we want this done. We’ll be saving ourselves $3,000, and we will be saving an industry.”

Mr. Newman and Mr. Booker voted to reinstate the lease. Ms. Rose opposed the motion.

Beach walk

In a phone conversation yesterday, Ms. Ackerman said Mr. Newman and Mr. Booker inspected the shoreline with her last week. She said they talked about things that needed to be worked on, and she agreed to keep them updated.

“I feel encouraged,” Ms. Ackerman said. “They listened. That’s very sad that communications made it embarrassing for everybody.”

Mr. Newman said yesterday that much of the debris has been cleaned up since he photographed the beaches in June, though he said he intended to go back to the beach at low tide for further observation.

“We’re setting up a plan to clean things up,” Mr. Newman said. He said the board’s vote to reinstate Ms. Ackerman’s lease was predicated on her cooperation and clean up of the site in a short period of time. “The tenor of the meeting was enough to warrant giving her more consideration, and to follow due process, that’s the most important thing that was lacking,” Mr. Newman said.

When asked who was responsible for grow bags washed up on other parts of the shoreline, he said he didn’t observe areas beyond Ms. Ackerman’s lease. “We have to find out whose they are first, if there are any,” Mr. Newman said. “Somebody told me there were, but I haven’t been down there.”

Tax issues

Over the past four years, the town has foregone $48,000 in tax revenue from property owners along western shoreline of Menemsha Pond. The town expects to forego another $16,000 this year.

In a phone conversation last month, assessor Angela Cywinski said the lost revenue comes in the form of adjustments to the value of the land. The property of six private landowners is valued at a lower price, because the debris deprives them of the use of their shoreline.

For example, property owned by Robert Rosenberg, which abuts the oyster farms, is currently valued at $2,177,200, according to assessor’s records. Ms. Cywinski said it would be valued at $2,643,800, a difference of $466,600, if the owner could use their shoreline property.

“It’s significant,” Ms. Cywinski said. “That’s a lot.”

Ms. Cywinski said she consulted state officials to determine how the failed oyster project affects land values.

The Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation also owns land along the shore, but that land is tax-exempt.

Who owns what?

Ms. Ackerman and the Wampanoag Tribe began raising oysters on Menemsha Pond in 2002, on underwater land owned by the town. In 2007, the tribe suspended the operation.

In a phone interview with The Times last month, Ms. Ackerman refused to clarify who is responsible for the debris along the shoreline. Town officials said her oyster farm is an area on the southern side of the shoreline, while the tribe’s project is on the northern side of the shoreline. But she said the aquaculture operation is a joint effort.

A telephone call and email exchange with tribe officials shed little light on the tribe’s current role. In an email to tribe administrator Tobias Vanderhoop, The Times asked who owns the bags, to what extent the tribe would contribute to the cleanup, and the tribe’s relationship to Ms. Ackerman’s operation.

Mr. Vanderhoop said the tribe is responsible for picking up its own bags, which are tagged with a number to call if they are found. He said the tribe had given away or sold most of its extra bags.

Town officials are also unclear about who is responsible for the project. Last year, when the issue of scattered debris came to a head, selectmen declined to renew the tribe’s five-year lease, which expired in 2008. The original lease between the town and the tribe cannot be examined, because the town cannot find it.