By Thane Grauel
WESTPORT — By December, oystering on Sherwood Mill Pond usually goes dormant during the coldest months.
November is a wind-down month, some oysters are transplanted and equipment is pulled from the pond for winter storage.
But the season ended this year on a stormy note.
A company called Haslea, which is leasing the beds owned by Jeff Northrop, applied to the state Department of Agriculture to expand the use of mesh oyster cages to raise some of the oysters. The state wrote to Westport, asking about possible effects on navigation, recreational activities, wildlife and nearby structures.
At a Nov. 3 public hearing of the town’s Shellfish Commission, neighbors complained about shellfishing operations, while the Conservation Commission staff had a long list of questions about the operation and plans it wanted answered before responding to the state.
After the contentious hearing, the Shellfish Commission sent a three-and-a-half page letter to the state expressing concerns not just about possible effects on wildlife and recreational paddling, but with what it called “inconsistencies” in the application.
Two days after the hearing, Northrop penned a hand-written note, scuttling the application. Jonathan Goldstein of Haslea said in an email to the state that the application was withdrawn, at least for now, and that the operation would continue to use already-approved gear and traditional raking methods.
Northrop’s family has had rights to farm much of what’s now the bottom of Sherwood Mill Pond since before America was America. The pond was created by early settlers, when that part of what is now Westport was Fairfield, to water-power a grist mill. Oystering began in earnest in the mid-1800s, about the same time many farmers changed from growing grains to growing onions.
Clash of cultures?
Northrup said in an interview after the commission meeting that a few recent neighbors were making a lot of noise.
“The town has changed a lot,” Northrop said. “We always had some nice millionaires, now we have billionaires living around the pond. And these billionaires are extremely entitled.”
Randall Avery, a lawyer for the applicant, told the commission during the hearing that it had in the past approved the use of baskets that were larger than those proposed.
“What if it is so successful, you want to put more longlines in?” Conservation Director Alicia Mozian asked of the basket configurations. “Is there a tipping point for the pond, and I guess the answer is yes, 50 million oysters? … and you’re estimating now, how many oysters?”
“That’s private,” Northrop said.
“It’s proprietary,” Avery added.
Northrop said he spent tens of thousands on the study.
“This is strictly a gear application,” Northrop said. “The environmental impact of putting oysters in the very gear we’re talking about is a large environmental plus.”
An oyster, Northrop said, filters about 50 gallons of water a day, making Mill Pond cleaner than Long Island Sound.
Thomas Stanford, of 3 Old Mill Road, had written a letter expressing concerns about the oystering and any expansion of the mesh cages. He also spoke at the hearing and had a PowerPoint presentation.
“My position tonight, and my comments, is in strong opposition not only to this application to I think double the activity on the pond, but to work with the community and the town to find ways to diminish the existing activity,” he said.
“I stand on my back porch, listening and watching a team of people, not one or two, in a big silver center-console fishing boat, shoveling oysters into the pond 10 feet, 15 feet, from the back of my yard,” Stanford said.
There were questions about oyster crews using the Mill Pond Preserve, where Allen’s Clam House once stood, to access the pond, and whether they need permission or permits. Avery said it is an “easement of necessity.”
Assistant Town Attorney Eileen Lavigne Flug disagreed.
There also was discussion about how many boats were being used, and the ownership of the beds.
Northrop said the land was granted by the king of England more than 300 years ago.
“Do you have any paperwork that backs that up?” Mozian asked.
“All this information, just like the franchise beds that the Blooms own … these were grants from the king that go way back and that’s what a franchise bed is,” Northrop said, referring to the Bloom family, which owns an oystering operation in Norwalk and beyond.
“A franchise bed, as opposed to a bed that we lease from the state of Connecticut, a franchise bed actually depicts that we own the bottom of a federal navigable waterway,” Northrop said.
Northrop said the ancient franchises were upheld by the Supreme Court in the 1960s, and that the state has the information.
“This is not anything that you have to trust us on, a single phone call can be made,” Northrop said. “Or you can ask Norm Bloom if you believe him over us.”
Asked recently if there were outstanding issues with the Sherwood Mill Pond oystering operation, Mozian noted that the application had been withdrawn.