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Oyster recovery bid threatened?

Oysters, clams, fish and crabs typically dominate the discussion when the Potomac River Fisheries Commission meets in Colonial Beach.

But, for the second time in seven years, the bi-state panel waded into another topic that affects all the others—development. Specifically, a riverside development at Swan Point, Md.

Swan Point Development Co. LLC wants to add a 143-slip marina, 1,500 homes and several new piers to an existing development on a spit of land directly across the river from Colonial Beach. Additional shoreline work along several thousand feet of shoreline, and dredging a creek to accommodate the marina, is also planned.

Martin L. Gary, the commission’s executive secretary, saw an notice for a public hearing on the expansion last week. He attended the session in La Plata, Md., then invited a consultant for the developer to speak at Friday’s PRFC meeting.

Gary took over as executive secretary last July. One of his priorities has been tracking development projects on both sides of the river that could affect commission restoration efforts.

The PRFC, with representatives from Maryland and Virginia, was created in 1958 to manage and protect fisheries on the tidal portion of the river.

Gary’s predecessor, Kirby A. Carpenter, weighed in on the Swan Point development in 2007, when it was just getting started. Ellen Cosby, the commission’s assistant executive secretary, said Carpenter wrote a letter to the developer at the time, expressing concern about potential harm to fisheries.

Gary said that while he had little time to research the latest plan, “I did my best, based on concerns for quality of the water” around Swan Point, “and potential impacts to fishery resources and recreational and commercial fishermen.”

In an interview earlier this week, Gary said, “There’s potential impact on both sides of the river, and that’s what flew up red flags for me.”

Since 2010, the commission has worked to re-establish oyster growing areas from the U.S. 301 Harry W. Nice Memorial Bridge, down river to Stratford Hall on the Virginia side.

One is at Swan Point. Commercial fishermen set nets in the vicinity as well. Just last week, the PRFC hosted a regional water quality information exchange aimed at improving fish, crab and oyster stocks.

Milton McCarthy, a consultant for Swan Point Development Co., briefly outlined the plan, noting that the developer—on its own—spent $5 million to stabilize the shoreline and planted wetlands vegetation, to protect the river.

McCarthy said there’s been no assessment of specific impacts on the river on the latest plan, and that issues noted by Carpenter in his 2007 letter had been resolved.

PRFC Commissioner Dennis Fleming wanted more details on that and other aspects of the project.

“I think it would be prudent to stop here until we see some of those documents, those comments before we do anything,” he said.

Commissioner Tom O’Connell agreed, saying, “We need to be more familiar with the project.” Though permits for some of the Swan Point development were granted prior to oyster replenishment efforts at Swan Point, “still, we’ve got to watch out for that investment.”

The PRFC has spent about $200,000 on the program to date.

O’Connell said communication between the developer and the commission was a good start, and he wondered aloud “if there’s a way to support your project and protect the resources that we’re responsible for.”

Newly installed PRFC Chairman Ida Hall asked for the staff’s recommendation, with Gary suggesting two options—opposing it outright, or meeting with the developer to make it more river-friendly.

Gary recommended the latter, “to discuss what kind of neighbors the new residents and developers want to be on the river.”

He said a company that would lay out $5 million on an erosion project because it was the right thing to do for the river, might consider a like amount on oyster restoration.

“I wonder if they value oyster resources as much,” Gary said, noting that sum “would allow us to accomplish the number of [oyster] plantings in one year that it would take the commission five years to do.”

He told McCarthy, “That’s my gut reaction to this, really an olive branch to reach out to you.”

Hall chimed in, “That sounds like a tremendous opportunity for all of us.”

McCarthy agreed to arrange a meeting of PRFC staff and the developer next week. A public comment period on the project in Maryland ends March 31.

Rusty Dennen: 540/374-5431