Editorial: Helping watermen
Gloucester supervisors are being asked to make it easier for commercial watermen to work and thrive in the county, specifically, in the Perrin River, where an overlay district for commercial seafood uses is proposed.
While the board can’t do a thing about the size of catches and the prices paid, it can work with its own land use regulations. And these rules, principally of the zoning ordinance, grew up decades after the commercial fishing industry started on the waterfront.
On Tuesday, the board gave a preliminary endorsement to the proposal and forwarded it to the planning commission for study.
What situation would the overlay district resolve?
As a report from the Middle Peninsula Chesapeake Bay Public Access Authority points out, present zoning rules were enacted to maximize the residential value of waterfront property, which provides a large part of the county’s revenue through the real estate property tax.
Generations before zoning, watermen worked out their own land uses, and commercial docks were established in areas where the men concentrated their boats.
Today, with so many of these fishing businesses closing down, the watermen have lost their moorings. The report notes that many of the docks are what the rules call "nonconforming uses"—that is, they existed as "grandfathered" commercial use in a residential zone. After being shut down two years, they cannot reopen, if someone desired to do so, as commercial entities.
The report states "Watermen operating out of the Perrin River consider the way Gloucester County has not planned for the seafood industry a difficult hurdle to overcome because the current land use regulations do not favor the working waterfront industries." In other words, no one thought about the survival and future of the watermen when the zoning ordinance was drafted.
The overlay district could ease some of the present restrictions. And the report notes that the county’s own York River Use Conflict Study of 2009 endorsed a "no net loss" policy for working waterfronts. "However, without additional action to implement such a policy with adequate zoning and incentives for commercial water dependent uses, forces beyond the County’s control will further deplete the remaining viable working waterfronts," the report said.
The access authority worked with VIMS and the Virginia Sea Grant Marine Extension Program in drafting this work.
Disappearing seafood businesses means disappearing jobs.
The report, to our thinking, is good for these reasons:
1. It does not give up on commercial fishing; it tries to find a pathway for better days;
2. It was written only after consulting several times with the real stakeholders: the watermen. Maybe it’s a little late, but their views have been consulted.
This is government at its best. There are hundreds of details to examine and work out, but here is a case study in identifying a problem, finding out why it exists, and looking for ways to improve the situation. We hope the county authorities receive it in that spirit.