Our family oyster farm is under attack. Twelve days ago, we had a public hearing for a major, 175 foot dock expansion on the east side of my property and a minor repair to my existing three docks in Widow’s Hole on the west side of our place. Those floating docks can be seen by my four neighbors who abut our property but do not own any waterfront. They mounted a daunting and dismaying attack on the way we work and how we look from their vantage.
We are still shocked and saddened and depressed. We bought a small French bulldog puppy to cheer us up – it’s that bad.
The village board will vote on our permit in three weeks. The public hearing, which felt like a lynching to us, is closed. Now the parties can lobby.
We’ve been farming oysters here adjacent to our house for over 11 years. The attack on our behavior makes us question our actions and motives and goals. We gave up a lucrative software business on Wall Street, actually were shoved out, and started this farm which has become successful. But at what costs?
Greenport is a small village and everyone has heard of the hullaballoo. Do we really need to find out who are our friends and who oppose us? Or is this, as my wife suggests when we’re calm, just the normal growing pain for a successful business? We’ve always thought we were doing something for the community, reviving the once thriving oyster industry, as well as giving ourselves and our children some honest hard work.
Yesterday morning, we met Mary Bess Phillips, a village trustee, for coffee. She owns the local fish market and her husband has two 100 foot commercial draggers. Being in the business, she conveyed sympathy for our public drubbing right after the meeting. We met her to count votes on the board, which is made up of 4 trustees and the mayor. I had been on the board three years ago but left after one four year term. I do not get along with the mayor, an East Village carpenter/artist who often showed up barefoot at village meetings with a ring in a different part of his face every season.
Mary Bess thinks the permit will pass, with a slight modification in the creek. She said the mayor told the board the hearing was about a dock, not about the permitted farm. However, he let the meeting get personal just to get back at me. From our conversation, I gleaned that the neighbors had been all over the village trying to defame us and garner support. We did not make any personal comments during the meeting. Mary Bess is meeting with the lesbian neighbors who orchestrated the drama today. She has been warning everyone that we have certification from NY State Department of Ags and Markets as a farm, which gives us a lot of protection against neighbors who don’t like to see us working all the time. Basically, we have the law on our side but the comments section of the local paper was vicious and laced with personal insults. Hard to take.
Everyone in the coffee shop knew why we were there talking to Mary Bess. The mayor’s wife lined up for her latte and they smiled at each other. The former town supervisor, now a budding dock builder, voiced his support for us – he wants some of the work. Told us that Jill&Jenny had approached him earlier and he supported us. Told us the village had no legal standing to deny anything, especially since NYS DEC had approved the permit. So how much do we fight and what’s the purpose? What was really galling, was the day after the hearing, J&J sent me email offering to help us get the big dock. We had offered to negotiate before, but they wanted to belittle us publicly. I told her that the permit will pass or fail on its merits and that I wanted nothing to do with them. Their mooring ball, which they failed to pay for this summer, is still in my creek on the bottom and shore that I own. Last year, the NY Times ran a piece on their bungalow and they coo-ed over the waterfront they owned – which they do not – and the serenity of the creek. After sustaining $50,000 of repairs in the hurricane, we raised the rent on their mooring ball and that started their attack.
We invited the mayor and the entire board to visit us and make a fair appraisal. The mayor said he would but no date as yet. They vote in three weeks.
Ironically, there would be no oyster farm here if our neighbors, the year after we bought the place, had not sicced the cops on us. On a cold April morning, I was carrying my one and two year old children in my arms walking down to the old dock that was in the creek. The wooden ramp collapsed and all three of us were dunked in the 40 degree water. After a hasty retreat and a long, warm shower, I called the local dock builder, John Costello, and he sold me a new float and metal ramp. He was one of the only gentlemen I encountered after buying the largest and most expensive house in the village with my software earnings. He dropped off the pvc floats, the wood, the screws and nails and tools, advising each morning and checking my progress at 5. We launched the completed float through the reeds at high tide, positioned the new ramp and he removed 3 piles and sunk two new ones. He had assured me that we were replacing in kind and needed no permits. Three neighbors immediately made anonymous complaints, an armed officer of the DEC marched across my lawn and handed me a citation. To prepare for that administrative hearing, I hired a local lawyer. In his meagre office where he subsisted on real estate closings, he rolled out a map of Greenport Harbor. I noticed a large parcel in the bay next to my three acre lot. When I asked what that was, he said it’s probably yours, the tax id matches your upland property. He told me to write to Allbany for a copy of the original deed. A month later I received a handwritten deed from 1875 stating that “We, the people of New York, free and independent by the grace of god,” cede 4.5 acres to the original owners of our house which was built somewhere in the 1840′s. Without the neighbors innate hostility toward me, I would not own the bottom. Being retired at 40, and knowing that Greenport was once the oyster capital of New York, I put a black chip on its history and obtained permits to farm oysters at my site. The last of the 20 oyster companies here had folding in 1985. I called all the neighbors over to discuss our plans; and, at that time, they were happy that we were growing the animals in the bay and not the creek and that I was occupied and would not bother them.
The office of my software firm was at 1 Union Square and we often entertained clients at the Union Square Cafe. So, in 2003, when my first crop of oysters were ready for harvest, I instinctively knocked on the door at Union Square Cafe and asked if the chef would like to try our product. Ben Pollinger, who has moved on the be the chef at Oceana, liked the oysters, called up their sister restaurant at Gramercy Tavern and Tom Colichio, before he became famous, ordered two more bags a week and Heffernan at the Danny Meyer’s third restaurant, 11 Madison Park, ordered a bag. We packed 400 oysters in a cooler in the trunk of my old Caddy and made our first delivery, $260 worth of oysters. Using the phone book and the internet, I landed another dozen accounts, including Esca, Le Bernadine, the Grand Central Oyster Bar and the Four Seasons, so that I had to buy a Sprinter cargo van and huge marine coolers. It was not uncommon for a chef to comment that these were the best oysters he had every tasted. Laurent Tourdel, namesake of the BLT chain, called me chef, the highest accolade in the kitchen, since I do all the cooking of a raw oyster. An editor of the New Yorker lives in my apartment building in the city and he wrote a profile of the struggling operation the next spring.
Two days ago, we made our last delivery of oysters for the season into NYC. Hurricane Sandy killed over 100K of seed last year and that has caused us to run short earlier than normal this year. On the positive side, we could use a long vacation.
Isabel returned Wednesday afternoon to Greenport and I stayed overnight to watch a Knicks game with a friend and formerly my largest client in my software business. He was the head of the mortgage desk at Credit Suisse and struggled mightily during the crisis. He shorted every stock, bond and commodity in the world and staved off losses from a trader on his subprime desk who had mis-marked his positions. Credit Suisse was the only large investment bank that did not take a nickel of bailout money from any government in the world. Andy retired in 2009, got the math phd from Columbia he always wanted and started a hedge fund. This summer, he discovered he had colon cancer – surgery, radiation and now chemo. Looks promising. He’s 50.
So I slept over in the city and Isabel calls me as I was Christmas shopping. “The DEC is here!” For a year we’ve been talking with the Village’s Tree Comittee about planting a flowering catalpa tree at the street end. We offered to pay for it, then the head of the committee suggested that we buy two and plant one on our side of the street. They ordered the trees this summer, then told us that a catalpa is not an approved tree for the end of the street. So both trees arrived yesterday and we decided to plant them next to the neighbors, J&J, who organized the show at village hall. They don’t want to see us and we don’t want see them. They made an ‘anonymous’ complaint about the trees being planted ‘in a protected wetland’ and an armed officer came to our house and spoke to Isabel. I called him from New York. He contacted someone in their planting division. Catalpas are native east coast American trees, so there was no problem. He told Isabel that we do a lot for the community and we should be able to build secure dockage. He noted that the neighbors had been dumping their grass clippings across the fence, which, while not a wetland violation – that area is not wetland – is it a dumping violation.
We’ve been getting support lately. The head of the Business Improvement District told Isabel for us to fight and that we’ve enhanced the village. He told Isabel that our dock builder, and one of the village’s most successful businessman, upbraided Jill publicly for the show she staged. Another neighbor called last night. A neighbor at the end of the block flagged Isabel down while she was biking and told her she went through the same outrage 5 years ago when she built a dock and that J&J had orchestrated her public grilling. She told Isabel that she is still hurt whenever she thinks about it. A lifelong Greenporter at the coffee shop urged me on – that we were reviving a local industry that had been lost. My dentist said he was behind us. A man who lives a few blocks away and is an active ‘commenter’ on village affairs on the local paper’s website, keeps refuting attacks against us. Odd, because I don’t like to venture out in the village now for fear of being shunned.