County Drowns Va. Oyster Farm in Regulations

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YORK COUNTY, Va. -- Greg Garrett's connection to the Chesapeake Bay runs deep.

"My family actually came to the York River, my great-great grandfather, 14 generations ago in 1620. So we have a deep family heritage connected to this river, the York River, the lowest river of the Chesapeake Bay," Garrett told CBN News.

Now, more than 300 years later Garrett wants to do his part to keep the bay he loves clean. One of the best ways to do that: oysters.

"Each oyster draws in and admits about 50 gallons of sea water per day, so as the water passes by all day long the oysters are drawing it in and spitting it out," he explained. "God's natural way of purifying the sea water is the oyster. There is no filter, no natural filter better than the oyster for cleaning the bay."

By the Book

Five years ago, Garrett started his oyster farm, Greg Garrett Oyster Company, by getting all of the necessary state and local leases, licenses, certifications, and permits. Then after successfully running his farm for three years, neighbors complained and the county stepped in.

"They came up with the great idea that they needed a permit, that they could require a permit, for our oyster farm, and by the way they weren't going to give it to us, and that's when the trouble started," he said.

Three main concerns Garrett's neighbors and the county had were the noise, smell, and that large trucks would be driving through, disturbing the peaceful neighborhood.

But the largest truck that drives through is a pickup truck -- there's no smell of oysters -- and the loudest piece of equipment is an electric power washer. You can't even hear that from halfway across the yard, let alone at the property line.

Still, the county ordered Garrett to shut down his oyster farm, saying that although his property is zoned for agriculture, including livestock, oysters don't count.

"The definition of livestock was any animal grown for food," he said. "Three years after we had our oyster farm, after we were selling it with all the permits from the state, that's when the county created a new definition of livestock and the new definition of livestock is any animal grown for food, except shell fish."

County vs. State

Garrett took the county to court where they defended their new definition of an animal.

In a court brief the county said, "For purposes of ordinary everyday speech an oyster is an animal, but not, however, for purposes of the county's zoning ordinance, which has chosen to define the term more narrowly."

The county added that while they couldn't regulate what Garrett did with his oysters in the water, they could regulate what took place on his dock.

The state of Virginia says that Garrett can use the dock to transport his oysters as long as he doesn't clean or sort them there. But the county says he can't do any of it.

"Their position is even though the land is zoned for agriculture, including livestock, that the oysters could not touch the ground or touch our dock," Garrett said. "The oysters must stay in the water, therefore could never be harvested."

Garrett pointed out that there was nothing in the county code that specifically applied to his operation and the off-loading of his oysters. But the county argued differently.

"When one statute or ordinance speaks to a subject in a general way, and another deals with a part of the same subject in a more specific manner, the more specific provision controls the more general," the county said.

Mountain of Legal Fees

In the end, the judge ruled in Garrett's favor.

"They said we were within our rights to have an oyster farm, which made us in a grandfathered status," Garrett said. "Cause see, after we had our oyster farm here for three years, the county passed a new ordinance that prevented any oyster farms in spite of the agricultural zoning. But we were grandfathered because we'd been doing it for about three years at that time."

In today's legal world, however, that's not the end of the story. The county appealed and the Supreme Court of Virginia will hear the case this fall.

"I've spent thousands and thousands of dollars in legal fees. I just got a bill in the mail for $10,000. That's my current outstanding legal cost," Garrett said.

"It just piles up and piles up and piles up. In many weeks, the legal fees exceed the entire revenue for the entire oyster farm. It's absolutely terrible," he said.

Endless Laws?

Garrett was recently a guest on Fox News' "Illegal Jobs." Host John Stossel commented that after talking to the county administrator, even his producers couldn't tell what the law was.

"It's kind of like the Sadducees and the Pharisees," Garrett told Stossel. "If you have enough laws on the books, you can find something that anybody you want to accuse of a crime, or you want to accuse of doing something wrong, there is a law out there that you can catch them on."

For now Garrett is preparing once again to fight for his oysters with the greater goal of cleaning the bay and inspiring others to do the same.

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Caitlin Burke

Caitlin Burke

CBN News Producer

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