Shannon Flaherty of Salisbury, Mass., holds signs in support of her mother, who lives on Spinney Creek in Eliot, where some residents are opposed to a proposed expansion of a shellfish farm. Flaherty attended a state hearing in Kittery on the expansion proposal Wednesday. Because attendance exceeded the hearing site capacity, the event was rescheduled. Credit: Hadley Barndollar | Portsmouth Herald

KITTERY, Maine — After upward of 80 people showed up to the state-held public hearing for Spinney Creek Shellfish’s aquaculture expansion application, officials postponed the meeting on the spot due to capacity issues.

The meeting was scheduled for the basement room in Kittery’s Rice Public Library. By the start time at 6 p.m., seating was full, nearly 30 people were standing, and a line formed out the back door.

Amanda Ellis, aquaculture hearings officer for the Maine Department of Marine Resources, announced the agency would be postponing Wednesday night’s meeting, and rescheduling to Thursday, Sept. 27, at a larger venue to later be decided.

“When we try to schedule these, we never really know how many people to expect,” Ellis said. “It makes sense for a variety of different reasons to move it to Sept. 27, so everybody can hear the testimony and hear about the proposal.”

Spinney Creek, a 127-acre salt water pond split between Kittery and Eliot in the shadows of the Piscataqua River Bridge, has recently become the center of an aquaculture debate, where a 35-year shellfish company wants to grow their business and expand local farming opportunities, while residential abutters are concerned with the impact and appearance of the proposal.

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Spinney Creek Shellfish, owned by Eliot residents Lori and Tom Howell, seeks licensure for 3.67 acres of suspended culture of oysters and quahogs as a “commercial research and development project” to explore the maximization of its farming operations and its economic feasibility. If approved, the experimental lease would allow for a maximum of 800 cages. The Howells currently operate 180 cages in the body of water.

The Howells say they’ve been taking care of and cleaning up Spinney Creek for years, and their request to the state is simply that of a working Maine waterfront. The Maine DMR is the only agency that has jurisdiction over aquaculture proposals, and no local bodies hold control over Spinney Creek itself.

A group of residential abutters have formed an informal group called “Friends of Spinney Creek.” They’re vocally opposing the project they feel threatens the delicate ecosystem, their property values, boat navigation and quality of life.

Attendees were not pleased with Wednesday night’s postponement, though many vowed to return on the rescheduled date.

“I’m very disappointed,” said Kathy LeMoine, who lives on Spinney Creek on the Kittery side. “People made a great effort to come here and clear their schedules. We told the DMR this room would fit only 30, 40 people.”

LeMoine said she hoped they would pick a larger and more accessible venue such as the Kittery Community Center.

Shannon Flaherty, of Salisbury, Massachusetts, stood in the back of the room holding homemade signs that read, “800 cages are too many,” and, “Please don’t fill 3.67 acres of the beautiful creek with 800 cages.”

Shannon Flaherty’s mother, Diana Flaherty, lives directly on Spinney Creek on the Eliot side. Diana Flaherty said she had a speech prepared for Wednesday’s hearing. A photograph glued to one of Shannon Flaherty’s signs showed her feet lounging at the edge of a dock, where she said the aquaculture expansion is slated to go.

“I am not against aquaculture,” Diana Flaherty said. “I am fine with 180 cages. It has become the norm and we are OK with that. It’s when you want to expand to 800 cages, on the narrowest section of the creek, the most pristine.”

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Diana Flaherty said she does not support “a mega expansion,” and believes the tax impact and views should be considered by the DMR as legal criteria. Currently, they are not.

The DMR’s criteria does include absence of interference with ingress and egress of riparian owners, navigation, fishing and other uses, ability of the site and surrounding area to support ecologically significant flora and fauna, and public use or enjoyment within 1,000 feet of beaches, parks or docks owned by local, state or federal governments.

“There are too many questions that haven’t been answered,” she said. “I want answers now. I want to know how my life on the creek is impacted.”

Following the cancellation, applicant Lori Howell said, “I would have liked to get it done and finished tonight, but it was the right thing to do so people can see and hear.” Howell has previously said that her and her husband’s application “speaks for itself” and that “the state of Maine has decided this is an important activity for the people of Maine.”

Aquaculture lease hearings differ from other public hearings in the sense that they are adjudicatory hearings, where all witnesses who testify, including members of the public, must swear to tell the truth and be available for questions. Typically, hearings begin with a presentation by the applicant, a site review report by the DMR staff biologist, and then input from federal, state and local agencies, intervenors, and members of the public.

The hearing is rescheduled to Thursday, Sept. 27, at a to-be-determined location.

It will be held in Kittery because the proposal is for the Kittery side of Spinney Creek.

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