Doug Niven, one of the owners of Mere Point Oyster Company, designed this oyster tumbler that would be located at their proposed 40-acre oyster farm on Maquoit Bay. (CONTRIBUTED PHOTO)

BRUNSWICK — Just three years after launching The Mere Point Oyster Company in Brunswick, owners Doug Niven and Dan Devereaux are looking to launch the state’s second largest oyster farm, a 40-acre endeavor on Maquoit Bay.

For the owners, the expansion is the natural next step in their business’s growth and part of an effort to consolidate several existing smaller leases in the area. But some neighbors fear the development fear the project will turn the bay into an industrial area.

“What is striking … is the scale — the magnitude — of what’s going on,” said Paul Dioli, a member of the Maquoit Bay Preservation Group. “This is a factory going up on the water.”

Mere Point has had smaller leases to harvest oysters on the bay for years, so when the company filed an application for another lease, many residents didn’t really take notice, assuming the project would be similar to the farms that were already in place. It took a while before someone noticed the size of the proposal — a 40-acre farm that could eventually produce 5 million oysters annually.

Paul Dioli and his wife Kathie were shocked when they learned what the proposal entailed. The couple have lived on the waterfront for nine years now, and they’re used to the regular activity and noise of Maine’s working waterfront, including aquaculture farms.

“We see lobster boats all the time, and we’re huge proponents of aquaculture,” she said.

“There’s several great farms that have been in operation on that bay for years that have coexisted very nicely with the bay, with the neighborhood,” added Paul Dioli. “It’s never been an issue.”

Still, they fear what this significantly larger operation could bring about.

“It’s one thing to have a farm, but it’s another thing to have an entire industry out on the water,” said Kathie Dioli.

HOW BIG IS 40 ACRES?

Niven and Devereaux say the idea that they’re putting together a massive, industrial-scale project doesn’t hold water. According to Devereaux, the 40-acre figure attached to the project can mislead casual observers as to the relative size of the farm.

“When people look out on the water, they don’t necessarily interpret the amount of acreage that is there because you can see clearly,” he said. “It’s hard to get a perspective. … We’re asking for a relatively small portion of the bay.”

The bay covers about 3,000 acres, said Devereaux, meaning their farm would span just over 1 percent of the area if maxed out. The Department of Marine Resources places the limit for aquaculture farms at 100 acres — more than twice the area of the current proposal.

According to Maine Aquaculture Program Director Jon Lewis, the proposed farm would be large, but not unprecedented.

“Generally, our oyster farms around the state are 5-10 acres,” said Lewis. “This would be a large one.”

If it reaches the full 40-acres called for in the application, the farm would be second only to a 50-acre oyster farm in Trenton.

The company currently has 26 aquaculture leases in the area. If the department allows them to move forward with their proposal, those 26 leases will be consolidated and brought into the 40-acre area.

Residents have taken issue with several aspects of the project. Members of the Maquoit Bay Preservation Group showed up at last week’s Brunswick Town Council to voice concerns with the proposal, notably the impact the project would have on the environment and on activity in the bay. Noise produced by an oyster tumbler — a machine used to sort the oysters — was also a concern, with Paul Dioli comparing it to having a cement mixer on the water.

According to a state site plan review, the farm is unlikely to impact most traffic around the bay, as larger vessels will stick to the deep channels on either side of the farm. Smaller boats, especially those traversing east to west across the bay, might have to alter their routes around the site. Brunswick Police Cmdr. Thomas Garrepy and Marine Patrol Officer Curtis LaBelle both said they believed the project would not hinder mariners.

The site review also indicated minimal if any impact on lobstermen, shellfish harvesters and bait fishermen.

The owners believe their farm will improve the water quality in the bay. Key to that claim is the fact that a single oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water in a single day. Whereas most Mainers are concerned about what commercial activity is putting into the water, Niven and Devereaux are touting what their oysters are taking out of the water.

“It cleans the water. The water is less turbid, and you have more light penetration down to the eelgrass,” explained Devereaux. “Our oysters are helping the bay. They’re helping the vegetation of the bay. They’re creating habitat.”

As far as concerns over noise, Niven said that he built the oyster tumbler itself, and currently uses it out on the water at the company’s several active leases. He said the noise produced doesn’t even approach that of an idling lobster boat. The tumbler is powered by an electric, solar powered engine, further reducing noise.

TRANSPARENCY AND CONFLICT ON INTEREST

Kathie Dioli says she felt blindsided by the scope of the project when she learned about it, and believes the owners should have been more proactive in reaching out to residents.

While the application process includes opportunities for public involvement, including a scoping session which was held on Sept. 11, many residents weren’t yet aware of the scale. Some residents assumed that the lease would be for an aquaculture farm similarly sized to the ones existing in the bay.

“We had to start investigating on our own to find out what are these things? How do they develop? What happens with them?” she explained. “There was literally a complete lack of transparency by the principals.”

On the other hand, the owners say they don’t know what else could have done to be more transparent. Documents for the project have been online for months, including a site plan that addresses some use and environmental concerns. The public scoping session, was advertised in the newspaper, but Devereaux and Niven said no one else showed up.

In addition to the public process, the two sent letters to all their Mere Point neighbors in July, inviting them to visit their facility and learn about the company. Niven and Devereaux claim that they mentioned the new lease application at the event, though at least two attendees say they did not hear about it then.

Still, the owners maintain they were open about the application.

“We were never hiding it,” said Niven.

“These people just weren’t paying attention,” added Devereaux.

Devereaux serves as the harbormaster for Brunswick and is also listed as the town’s marine warden. For the Diolis and others who spoke at Monday’s Brunswick Town Council meeting, Devereaux’s involvement with the project is an issue.

“Dan is an officer in the town, and people were really worried about voicing their opinions and having retaliation,” said Kathie Dioli. “How’s the town going to react when one of the principal owners works for the town?”

She did not elaborate on what type of retaliation she or her neighbors were concerned about, and Devereaux dismissed the idea that he would retaliate.

While Devereaux acknowledged that the situation could have the appearance of a conflict of interest, he has recused himself from any decisions related to the application process. And at last Monday Brunswick Town Council meeting, Town Manager John Eldridge dismissed concerns over Devereaux’s involvement, noting that the aquaculture application was overseen by the state, not the town.

For Niven and Devereaux, much of the concern with their project stems from misunderstandings about their application and company, as well as a lack of knowledge among the community about aquaculture in general. The owners invited to members of the Maquoit Preservation Group and any other concerned neighbors to come to an information session from 5-7 p.m. Thursday at Curtis Memorial Library. Meridith White, director of research and development at Mook Sea Farm and other aquaculture experts will be holding a forum to address some common misconceptions about what aquaculture entails. Those who can’t attend can watch online.

In addition, there will be a public hearing on the project at 6 p.m., Oct. 18 at Brunswick Town Hall. Written comments will be accepted until 5 p.m. the day before.

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CLARIFICATION: The story has been clarified to indicate that a letter sent to residents did not specifically mention the 40-acre application, and two people who visited the company’s facilities claim the application was not brought up by the owners.

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