The Mathews Wetlands Board last Wednesday unanimously approved a restoration plan for destroyed wetlands on property owned by Sea Farms Inc. at Cricket Hill.
In February, the board charged owner Ron Sopko with destroying 21,345 square feet of wetlands and filling 5,613 square feet of subaqueous bottom by piling concrete rubble and oyster shells along the shoreline. The property, which has been used commercially for the better part of two centuries, is located at the mouth of Lanes Creek on Milford Haven.
Approval of the plan was made in spite of ongoing concerns expressed by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science about such issues as erosion control methods, drainage and planting times. Sopko’s attorney, Gary Bryant, argued that his client had tried to address all of VIMS’s recommendations, but that the VIMS advisor kept coming up with more.
"We thought we’d addressed all these things, then we show up and we haven’t," said Bryant. "We’re being pulled in all different directions. We want to fix this."
Mathews wetlands administrator Matt Rowe said that Sopko had already begun to clear away the rubble and shell, and board member Ted Broderson moved to approve the application. Broderson pointed out that the site had been commercial for 200 years and that not all of the problems there had been caused by Sopko.
"It’s a very complex issue that has been addressed with the utmost concern for the environment," said Broderson. "Although (Sopko) has not been the best steward of the environment, the current plan will take us forward to the best solution possible."
In an interview last Thursday, Sopko said that, while he wasn’t completely free of blame for the violation, "none of it was done on purpose." He said the property had been covered with oyster shells by previous owners, and he didn’t think it was a big deal. Because the peninsula is low-lying, he said, any part of the property that’s left untended quickly grows up in marsh grass and salt bush.
"It was an oyster shucking house when I moved there," he said (he lives on the adjacent property), "and oyster shells are a by-product of the business. I’m not innocent, but I’m not guilty of all they said, either."
Sopko was able to avoid being charged with an original violation of destroying around 50,000 square feet of wetlands by showing proof that the property had been developed before his time.
He had a photo of a wharf in one area that would have been serviced by a road, as well as photos of the peninsula after various storm events that showed how oyster shells piled on upland had been scattered. He discovered a foundation for a building under an area now covered with salt bushes, and he had proof that he didn’t start shucking oysters at the site until the mid-1990s, as opposed to the late 1980s, as originally charged. But he didn’t have proof to back up some of his claims.
"I was told that you could once drive a truck all the way around the building," he said, "but with no pictures, I couldn’t prove what it was before. You’re guilty ’til you’ve proved yourself innocent."
The project is estimated to cost $50,000, and Sopko said that’s a blow to his business during tough economic times.
"It’s an incredibly expensive project," he said. "There’s no fish, there’s no oysters, then this. It’s knocked the wind out of my sails; I’m close to calling it quits."
After the board approved the wetlands application for Sea Farms, planning director John Shaw pointed out that a retaining wall on the upland would still need to be approved administratively by his department.
The board also approved three other applications and denied one.
An after-the-fact application was approved for Brian Grizzard of Richmond, who had already replaced a previously-existing seawall and groin, then added an observation deck at the end of the groin.
In approving the project, which is located along the Chesapeake Bay at 265 Saunders Lane, the board took into consideration the fact that the house was so close to the edge of the water that there was no room for revetment, and that the owner, who had recently purchased the property, had been told by the contractor that he could replace a structure in the same footprint without a permit.
The board decided unanimously not to charge Grizzard with a violation, since the contractor who was responsible for the misunderstanding "got away from us."
Next door to Grizzard, at 267 Saunders Lane, property owner Nina Crofton of Richmond was granted a permit to construct a 60-linear-foot stone revetment.
Al Carpenter of 262 Ginney Point Lane received unanimous approval to construct two sills—one 30 linear feet and one 115 linear feet—along with a 71-linear-foot marsh toe and 50 linear feet of stone revetment at his property on the Piankatank River.
The board routinely expresses concern about hardening shorelines, and the Carpenter property contains, according to wetlands board chair Ken Kurkowski, "an incredibly valuable piece of wetlands." However, he said that he had walked the shoreline and found that a lot of it was undercut.
"If VMRC could stop the yachts running up and down," he said, "we probably wouldn’t have the problem."
The project will disturb seven square feet of wetlands, and agent Sherry Ashe said the Carpenters already have plans to plant spartina grass in an area four times that, so the board didn’t assess a fee for mitigation.
An application by Alice C. Warlick of Susan for a permit to install 85 linear feet of stone revetment at her property at 361 Sloop Creek Road on Mobjack Bay was denied. The vote was three to two with Broderson, Katy Walden and Eddie Inge voting to deny the application, and Mike Brown and Kurkowski dissenting. Broderson said that erosion at the site was minimal and that the area under consideration could be protected by cleaning it up and planting it with vegetation.