It would be the largest geoduck farm in Pierce County. Neighbors are fighting it

People who live near Burley Lagoon do not want a geoduck farm in their backyard.

That was their message for land-use officials at one of the final opportunities for public comment before the Pierce County hearing examiner decides whether to approve a proposal to raise the large clams in the lagoon.

More than 40 locals spoke May 22 at a joint meeting of the Key Peninsula Advisory Commission and Gig Harbor Peninsula Land Use Advisory Commission.

Taylor Shellfish, the company that wants to raise geoducks in the lagoon, already farms oysters and Manila clams on 300 acres there. There’s been a shellfish operation there for almost a century, the Gateway previously reported, and Taylor Shellfish started managing it in 2012. The company wants to convert 25.5 acres, about 8.5 percent of the farm, to raise geoducks.

Ty Booth, a planner with the Pierce County Planning and Public Works Department, explained at the meeting that the advisory commissions would make a recommendation to the hearing examiner about whether the shoreline permits for the project should be approved. Then the hearing examiner would make a decision. That hearing has not been scheduled, Booth said.

A map prepared for the Environmental Impact Statement shows the location of the proposed Taylor Shellfish geoduck beds.
A map prepared for the Environmental Impact Statement shows the location of the proposed Taylor Shellfish geoduck beds.

The commissioners were divided after hearing from the public and reviewing the proposal.

The Key Peninsula group voted 5-2 Thursday night to recommend approving it. The Gig Harbor group voted 3-2 Wednesday night to recommend denying it.

“We appreciate the opportunity to discuss the project with the LUAC members and hear additional public comments on the project,” Taylor spokesperson Bill Dewey said in an email to The News Tribune. “The next step will be consideration before the Pierce County Hearing Examiner, with a focus on whether this proposal meets the requirements for permit issuance and whether the EIS (environmental impact study) was properly issued. We strongly believe that the project meets all permit requirements and that the EIS is robust, and we look forward to continuing to work through the review process.”

The county issued its final environmental impact study for the proposal in January.

“The EIS studied sediments, aquatic vegetation, water quality, fish and wildlife, noise, recreation, aesthetics as well as cumulative impacts and marine debris,” Booth said.

He said it concluded “that there will be minor to moderate impacts to the various topics studied.”

The study has been appealed by the Coalition to Protect Puget Sound Habitat, Friends of Burley Lagoon, Tahoma Audubon Society, and Friends of Pierce County.

The Pierce County hearing examiner is expected to have hearings later this year to decide whether to approve the shoreline permits and to consider the appeal.

‘Nets and nets and nets’

All the residents who spoke May 22 seemed adamantly opposed to geoduck farming in Burley Lagoon. Some said they coexisted fine with prior shellfish farmers, but that the industrial nature of Taylor’s operation has made the company a bad neighbor.

One concern cited by residents is the netting that would be used during part of the process to keep predators away. Other residents were concerned about debris from the operation.

One man held up a handful of what looked like netting and other debris he said he’d collected recently from the existing shellfish operation.

Another described how lights from the existing operation shine into his home at night.

A young woman said her mother grew up water-skiing the lagoon, but that she’s not allowed to because it’s too dangerous today. A neighbor saw a net floating under her jet ski, she said.

Another woman played sounds she recorded from the wetlands in her backyard, apparently to show the commissioners what she wants to protect.

Residents also are concerned about PVC pipes that could be used to plant geoducks. The PVC pipes would stick out of the lagoon at times.

“It would be a huge change, visually and environmentally, and a bad one,” said Charlie Walters, who lives about four miles down the beach from Burley Lagoon.

A Taylor shellfish representative at the meeting said that planting would be done in phases, in a patchwork system with beds that would be about 1.5-2 acres each.

The cycle takes five to six years, and the tubes are used for about 18 months, the representative said.

The EIS says the company “confirmed to Pierce County that approximately 37,026 tubes per acre would be planted within the proposed geoduck culture area.”

It explains that the tubes would be “present on culture plots for two to three years of the six-year culture cycle.”

Wendy Ferrell told commissioners she’s the fifth generation of her family to live on Burley Lagoon. Her ancestors arrived by rowboat and made homestead claims in 1884.

She said she remembered prior oyster company owners as friends and members of the community. There weren’t nets on the tideflats or loud barges, she said.

Ferrell said that changed when Taylor Shellfish took over.

“Nets and nets and nets,” she said.

Ferrell said a cousin who came to visit asked: “What have they done to the lagoon?”

She said her family has watched companies come and go but that the proposed industrialization is an “unprecedented threat.”

Bob Christel said the community has a responsibility to protect the lagoon.

“If we fail to protect this place, future generations will look back at this debate with anger and disbelief,” he told the commissioners.

Bruce Morse asked the commissioners what legacy they wanted to leave their grandchildren.

“How far are we willing to compromise the health and enjoyment of our sound?” he asked.

Janey Aiken argued that the commissioners had a choice between salmon or geoduck.

The proposal, Aiken told them, “will push Burley Lagoon to its tipping point.”