The question of divvying up a public resource for private gain is often a dicey one.

In the United States the tussle has been most pronounced in the western states, where the federal government has vast tracts of public land viewed by corporations and individuals as a way to make money.

But a similar issue can be found here out at the eastern edge of the continent, in those tidelands of Buzzards Bay where the Town of Bourne holds jurisdiction.

The matter is prompted by a relatively new industry in coastal New England, that of shellfish aquaculture, or, to use a more rudimentary term, shellfish farms.

Like any farm on dry land, a shellfish farm out in the water needs enough property to make a return on investment worthwhile.

By definition, however, the tidelands are public.

In that light, towns on Cape Cod and along the New England shoreline have evolved the concept of aquaculture, or shellfish, grants.

If suitable tideland is available—tideland conducive to the propagation of shellfish which does not conflict with other uses, such as recreation or boating—towns can lease sections of that tideland to private individuals or businesses.

So how to divvy up the resource?

That question arose several weeks ago at a selectmen’s meeting.

James Ross, a shellfish farmer in Bourne, asked for the board’s approval to expand his existing grant, which consists of one-third of an acre in the waters east of Hog Island.

Christopher Southwood, the town’s director of natural resources, said there was enough tideland to allow for the expansion. Mr. Southwood further told the board that expanding the grant would allow Mr. Ross to grow his business.

But then Selectman James L. Potter raised a key question: Why allow an existing shellfish farmer to expand, when newcomers were not allowed to obtain grants in the first place?

Mr. Potter recalled a selectmen’s meeting in March of last year when a Buzzards Bay resident, Zachary Haskell, raised that very question.

Mr. Haskell cited the town’s moratorium, enacted in 2016, on new shellfish grants.

At that March meeting, Mr. Haskell said approving expansion of an existing grant was “basically making a monopoly of this industry against people like me.”

He questioned how he would ever begin to enter shellfishing if only the current farmers were given the limited space available in town.

Mr. Potter decided to join his fellow selectmen in approving Mr. Ross’s expansion—but also drew a line in the tideland.

“I’m going to support this,” the selectman said, “but I will not support an additional expansion unless we’ve leveled the playing field in the future.”

He is right to do so—and he should be joined by his fellow selectmen in the future, should a similar scenario arise.

The discussion at the selectmen’s meeting raises a larger, if related, question: why is the Town of Bourne drifting on the issue of shellfish farms?

The prior director of natural resources for the town, Timothy Mullen, initially recommended the moratorium because of the lag time applicants were experiencing in getting the necessary permitting from state regulators.

“Given the statute that says once we accept an application, we have to act on it within 60 days, I highly recommend before we get inundated with more applications and not know where we’re going to put these people and not know what’s going to be approved and what isn’t, that we stop accepting them for now,” Mr. Mullen said.

The board did so. That was in October 2016—more than three years ago.

Even if the lag time with state regulators continues to be an issue—and we’re not certain that’s the case—three years is more than enough time to devise some sort of system within the town to somehow accommodate individuals who would at least like an eventual shot at a Bourne shellfish grant.

In fairness to Mr. Southwood, he told the selectmen that he is conducting a review of Bourne shellfish permitting and regulations. That includes discussing the town’s aquaculture rules and the shellfish grant moratorium with the Bourne Shore and Harbor Committee.

Shellfish aquaculture is thriving in coastal Massachusetts. Bourne should be part of that. The town needs to move sooner rather than later on ending the moratorium.

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