KENNEDYVILLE – Amid tools, heavy equipment and the smell of engine oil and pulled pork sandwiches, Maryland Department of Natural Resources Secretary Mark Belton answered questions in a repair bay at the Binkley & Hurst tractor dealership in Kennedyville Friday, Dec. 4 on a variety of topics at a forum held for farmers and hunters.
Kent County Commissioner Bill Short introduced Belton, who grew up in Queen Anne’s County and previously served as president of the county commissioners there, following a lunch of the aforementioned sandwiches provided by Keep Kent Scenic, an organization hoping to halt plans for a large-scale wind farm in the Kennedyville area.
“As I drove up (state routes) 290 and 291 from the highway today, I went through Crumpton and over the Crumpton River bridge there. And I remember jumping off the bridge as a youngster and swimming in the river with my friends. So, it’s really nice to come up this way today,” Belton said.
He spoke about the five core pillars of Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration – fiscal responsibility, economic expansion and job creation, reform and efficiency, reduced fees and taxes and quality of life – and the ways he incorporates each into his department’s efforts. He said he did not expect conflict resolution to play such a large part of his day-to-day work.
“I come to find out it’s a lot of stakeholder conflict. It seems like every day I’m dealing with issues of incompatible uses in our states parks and our (Chesapeake) Bay,” Belton said.
There was no shortage of conflicts for audience members in the Binkley & Hurst garage.
Members of Keep Kent Scenic raised questions about the DNR’s role in the permitting of Mills Branch Wind. The project, proposed by Apex Clean Energy, would see 25 to 35 500-foot-tall wind turbines placed on area farms.
Belton said Apex has yet to file an application with the state, though he will be happy to “let the world know” when that happens.
He said the DNR’s Power Plant Research Program provides a clearing house review of such applications for various environmental divisions. In the meantime, he and the DNR must remain neutral.
In a friendly exchange, Janet Lewis, a Keep Kent Scenic organizer, asked how the state will ensure good customer service when it comes to Mills Branch Wind, so that those opposed to the project will not see any large turbines in the county.
“So you’re defining good customer service as getting the answer you want, right?” Belton quipped.
“Correct,” Lewis said to a round of applause.
Mills Branch Wind is on Belton’s radar. He said he will ensure citizens’ voices are heard during the review process.
“There was one weekend when my inbox had nothing but emails from you all,” Belton said.
Several questions dealt with hunting.
Farmer Samuel Owings, of Queen Anne’s County, asked about moving the early goose hunting season that generally occurs the week of Thanksgiving to the tail end of the regular season, running this year from Dec. 15 to Jan. 30. He said the migratory geese have been sparse for the last couple of years in November.
“It’s turning into just sort of a bust,” he said.
Peter Jayne, the DNR’s associate director of game management, said federal regulations dictate the end of the hunting season. He said efforts are being made to add a bit more time to the end.
“However, that week, that Thanksgiving week, of goose season is a very traditional time to get out with your family and friends,” Jayne said.
Kent County veterinarian Judy Tubman and real estate agent Paula Reeder voiced their opposition to Sunday hunting, which is allowed in some Maryland counties. While it is open only on select dates in Kent County, Tubman said Sunday hunting opportunities continue to grow.
Reeder said non-hunters should have just as much say as hunters in such a quality of life issue.
“I’m not a religious person, and I thank God for Sundays,” Reeder said. “One day a week seems a small price to pay for me to have peace and quiet.”
As much as it is considered a recreational activity, deer hunting also is about managing the herd. Tubman said to that end, the state could extend the deer season, rather than tack on Sundays.
Still Pond resident Albert Nickerson said deer hunting is a family tradition, but since his boys are still in school, they can only go out in the stands on Saturdays. He also said that while he expects Tubman would not ride her horse across his property, likewise would he not go hunting on hers.
Scott Benfield, the general manager of the Great Oak Manor bed and breakfast, said Sunday hunting could lead to increased tourism in Kent County.
Jayne said sometimes the weather on Saturday is poor, leaving hunters without the opportunity to go out for the week.
“Reducing the deer population is certainly an important part of hunting. But that’s not the only reason for hunting. It’s recreation,” Belton said. “Sometimes Sunday is all some people have available.”
Belton said state lawmakers see Sunday hunting as local issue, and that has created a hodgepodge of different regulations throughout various counties.
He would like to see uniform regulations, reducing the number of Sunday hunting days and making the schedule more predictable across county lines. He said the difficulty is getting legislators onboard.
When asked to push the governor to ban watermen from harvesting oysters in the Bay, Belton gave an unequivocal “no.”
Talbot County resident Bruce Gordon posited the idea for the ban, saying that oysters are the best bet for filtering pollutants from the Bay. With more than 4 billion oysters needed to do the job, Gordon suggested watermen transition to cultivating the Bay delicacy through aquaculture.
Belton said he would not suggest the governor do away with the public fishery. He said the Bay can support both the wild harvest and aquaculture.
He spoke about oyster restoration efforts in various Bay tributaries and plans to convene a fishery stakeholders group to advise the governor.
“I’m not going to ask Gov. Hogan to stop harvesting oysters. It’s a very vital part of our economy,” Belton said.
Waterman Rob Newberry, who is chairman of the Delmarva Fisheries Association, asked about whether the state is considering planting oysters in the Upper Bay.
Belton said the state is working with the Environmental Protection Agency to include oyster repopulation in federally-mandated pollution reduction efforts for the Bay. He said oysters could be turned into nutrient reduction credits, which are “sold” to other jurisdictions involved in the Bay cleanup.
Newberry also asked about a congressional resolution passed by the U.S. House of Representatives Thursday, Dec. 3, limiting the state’s role in relicensing the Conowingo Dam to the Exelon power company. U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md.-1st, whose district includes the dam, was the only Maryland congressman to vote in favor of the measure.
The Conowingo Dam, located on the Susquehanna River in Cecil County, has been cast in recent years as a chief source of sediment pollution in the Upper Bay.
Newberry said a lot of people are not aware of how much sediment comes into the Bay from the dam.
The vote troubled Belton, who signed a letter with Maryland Department of Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles to the state’s congressional delegation opposing the resolution. He said the resolution still needs to get through the Senate.
“We’ll redouble our efforts on the Senate side and see what we can’t do about that,” Belton said.
Short asked about plans for the Wick farm in Millington. The state purchased the farm last year, under then Gov. Martin O’Malley, for about $2 million with plans to turn it into a distribution hub for locally produced food.
Since the food hub plans appear to have fallen through, Short wanted to know if the property would be returned to the private sector.
“I was wondering if the Wick farm was going to come up,” Belton said to laughter from the audience.
He said the property plays into the governor’s fiscal responsibility pillar. He said the park service is reviewing potential uses for the farm and the DNR may issue a request for ideas from the public.
“But if I can’t find anything that looks like it is going to break even or be a value for that particular property, I would be very much in favor of recommending the governor declare it surplus and try to sell it,” Belton said.
Reeder, who is a member of the Upper Eastern Shore Beekeeping Association, gave Belton a bit of a surprise by asking about increased funding for state apiary inspectors and additional program support. She also asked that better notice be given to beekeepers about any chemical spraying that may occur near their properties.
“All right, I didn’t expect that question today,” Belton said.
He asked Reeder to send him a list of concerns about the DNR’s apiary program.
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