A neighborhood skirmish over a single shellfish lease in a small Southern Maryland creek has turned into a full-blown oyster war pitting descendants of some of the state’s wealthiest and most influential families against a nascent but growing industry.Talk about privilege. Her ancestors actually owned slaves. You know, fishermen were collecting oysters out there when Sotterly was a real functioning plantation.
Trustees and staff at Sotterley Plantation, a restored 18th century Patuxent River estate, opposed a 3-acre lease just offshore that Talmadge Petty, the founder of Hollywood Oyster Co., applied for to grow oysters. Sotterley and neighboring homeowners on the picturesque creek protested Petty’s lease, contending that having the aquaculture operation within sight would ruin the plantation’s historic ambiance.
After 18 months of litigation and bureaucratic procedures, the Department of Natural Resources came down in favor of the oyster farming operation.
Now, plantation supporters seek to stop oyster farmers from leasing within 300 feet of the shoreline of Sotterley and other historic properties. Michael Whitson, the politically connected former president of the Sotterley board of trustees, enlisted Del. Dana Stein, a Baltimore County Democrat, to sponsor legislation that would give those property owners veto power over leases in waters already approved for aquaculture by the state.
Stein’s bill, H.B. 1284, sailed through the House of Delegates. It passed 139 to 1 after being amended to limit its scope from historic places, which would have encompassed hundreds of properties, to the state’s 70-some designated National Historic Landmarks.
But the bill has gotten a more skeptical reception in the Senate, where after an April 4 hearing, it remains in committee as the 90-day legislative session nears its conclusion Monday at midnight.
The plantation’s supporters say the viewshed is important for telling Sotterley’s story, particularly the part about how slave ships came up Sotterley Creek from the Patuxent to support the landed gentry’s opulent lifestyle. A slave cabin remains on the site, as does an African-American graveyard.
“You go out there, and you see this privileged white guy who has plunked down his oysters on what should be a memorial site,” said Gita Van Heerden, a Sotterley descendant and supporter. Her family once owned Sotterley and now owns a waterfront home close by. “It is immoral, it is greedy, and it is everything that is wrong with America.”
Sotterley is kind of cool, but go see Monticello.