Owners of Spinney Creek Shellfish, Eliot residents Tom and Lori Howell, talk about their proposed expansion at a hearing in Kittery hosted by the state Department of Marine Resources in late September. Credit: Ioanna Raptis | Seacoast Online

KITTERY, Maine — The state’s Department of Marine Resources will reopen the evidence record on Spinney Creek Shellfish’s aquaculture application during another hearing scheduled for Jan. 8, this time at the Kittery Community Center.

The DMR noticed waterfront landowners and the town on Dec. 6 of the new hearing date, which arose after Kittery residents James and Filomena Knowles at the end of October asserted property ownership extending to the low tide mark of the creek. If that is the case, the Knowles believe Spinney Creek Shellfish’s aquaculture operations would violate private property rights.

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Tom and Lori Howell, who own Spinney Creek Shellfish in Eliot, seek to expand their oyster farming operations to a maximum of 3.67 acres on the 127-acre Spinney Creek. The husband and wife have worked on the creek for more than 30 years and their oysters are distributed nationwide. The Howells argue it’s their right to expand their livelihood as a working Maine waterfront, on a body of water they’ve cared for for years. But a group of residents and abutters, called Friends of Spinney Creek, oppose the expansion, citing a reduction in quality of life, the environment and safety, and collected 400 signatures on a petition opposing the application.

The Howells have asserted they’re good neighbors and stewards of the environment. They currently operate 180 aquaculture cages, and if their application is approved, that could grow to 800, increasing their oyster production from 150,000 per year to half a million.

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Concerned residents felt their interests were not fairly represented or expressed at the adjudicatory hearing held at Traip Academy Sept. 27, leading both towns to request a second hearing. Kittery Town Manager Kendra Amaral said residents felt “disenfranchised” by the process, and Town Councilor Charles Denault, who attended the hearing, said he felt the state degraded the residents and had already made up its mind about the application.

DMR initially denied a request for postponement on its decision, and both Kittery and Eliot’s requests for a scoping session to be held. But officials reversed course when the Knowles sent a letter to DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher. The Knowles asserted many deeds of riparian owners on Spinney Creek convey ownership to the middle of the creek itself, the line that divides it between Kittery and Eliot. They claim if the Howells did not control the tidal gate that closes off the creek to the Piscataqua River the body of water would be intertidal, with the aquaculture contraptions ultimately resting on their privately owned land at low tide.

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Per state law, if a municipality has a shellfish conservation program in place, which Kittery does, and the proposal at hand is for an intertidal zone, town approval may be required. DMR is currently the final decision maker.

The Jan. 8 hearing will begin at 5 p.m. in the KCC’s Star Theatre, where DMR intends to take evidence on issues of whether the land below the proposed lease is intertidal, and ownership of that land. DMR will only hear evidence in accordance with its criteria, established by the Legislature, which does not include views, property values or odors, for example.

If the hearing needs to be postponed or continued, it will be held on Jan. 14 at the same location.