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Sonoma takes unexpected stand on Drakes Bay Oyster Co.

Drakes Bay Oyster Co.

Press Democrat file photo
Published: Wednesday, June 5, 2013 at 8:58 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, June 5, 2013 at 8:58 a.m.

Situated about 50 miles from Drakes Estero in Marin County, the landlocked city of Sonoma would seem an unlikely place to take a stand in an oyster company's fight for survival.

But colorful signs supporting the Drakes Bay Oyster Co. have popped up all over town, and the Sonoma City Council on Monday unanimously adopted a resolution calling on state and federal legislators to intervene on the company's behalf.

The city's resolution cites the “heroic efforts” by Kevin and Nancy Lunny to keep their oyster company going in Drakes Estero, a 2,500-acre federally protected estuary in the Point Reyes National Seashore.

Sonoma leaders consider the company a sterling example of sustainable agriculture and the kind of environmental leadership the city of 10,000 residents promotes.

Councilwoman Laurie Gallian said the case highlights “what is being done to (a) small farmer without due process.” If the city failed to act, “we would be very lax in our ability to set policy and lead communities,” she said.

On Tuesday, Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-San Rafael, said the state Legislature cannot get involved in pending litigation, referring to the oyster farm's legal battle with the Department of the Interior following former Secretary Ken Salazar's order last fall to close the farm that harvests $1.5 million worth of oysters a year.

“We need to await the outcome of that (legal) process,” said Levine, who was elected in November to a Sonoma-Marin district that includes Drakes Estero.

Asked if he thought California had the right to lease the estero bottom for oyster production, a fact assumed by the resolution, Levine said that even if that were the case the oyster company “still may need to deal with getting access to the shoreline.”

“That's a question that I would have,” he said.

Rep. Jared Huffman, also a San Rafael Democrat whose North Coast district includes Drakes Estero, declined comment Tuesday, citing the press of congressional business.

Huffman has previously remained neutral in the oyster company dispute.

Three judges from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals are expected to rule by mid-July on the Lunnys' request to continue raising Pacific oysters in the estero, a biologically rich waterway that hosts fish, migrating birds, bat rays, leopard sharks and one of California's largest harbor seal colonies.

The farm's permit to raise shellfish in waters designated by Congress as “potential wilderness” expired in November and Salazar did not renew it.

The Lunnys immediately filed a federal lawsuit alleging the decision was “arbitrary and capricious” and based on flawed scientific assessments of their farm's impact on the estero.

Sonoma Mayor Ken Brown said Tuesday he brought the resolution to the council at the urging of Yannick Phillips, who like Brown is a member of the Sonoma Valley Grange.

Brown also noted that members of the Lunny family reside in Sonoma.

Councilman Steve Barbose said the oyster company is part of a “real movement” around locally sourced food. He called on cities in Marin County to get on board.

Twenty-four people addressed the council Monday with only two criticizing the resolution. Supporters included several members of the Lunny family and employees of the oyster farm.

Hunt Bailie, manager of Murphy's Irish Pub in Sonoma, told the council his staff shucks up to 400 Drakes Bay oysters every week. The pub's Tuesday night parties featuring beer-steamed bivalves are a popular draw for locals.

Bailie referred to Drakes Bay Oyster Co. as a “local business” and said it would be “ridiculous” if Murphy's and other Sonoma restaurants had to go to Washington state or to China for a new source of oysters.

The resolution called on Levine to “urge the State of California to assert its rights” to continue leasing the “water bottoms” in Drakes Estero for shellfish cultivation.

Huffman was asked to support a bipartisan congressional investigation into the “questionable science” that informed Salazar's decision not to renew the permit.

Kevin Lunny said Tuesday the matter wound up before the Sonoma council at the initiative of city residents who recognized Drakes Bay oysters as “a local food” and believe the farm is not harming the environment.

“We were just invited over,” he said.

Asked if he might make similar appeals to other cities, Lunny said: “I don't know. It might be (a new tactic).”

The council's agenda packet on the matter consisted of little more than the two-page resolution and a 15-page memo from Judy Teichman, a San Francisco attorney who filed a federal court brief supporting the oyster farm in March.

Berkeley chef Alice Waters and the Sonoma County Farm Bureau were among the 10 parties submitting the brief, which said the government order was “inconsistent with the best thinking of the modern environmental movement.”

Teichman's memo asserted that California has leased the estero water bottoms for shellfish production since 1934 and cited various documents from 1965 through 2012, including a California Fish and Game Commission letter to Salazar last year saying the commission “has clearly authorized the shellfish cultivation in Drakes Estero through at least 2029.”

On Tuesday, oyster farm opponents criticized Teichman's memo and the city's resolution.

Neal Desai, Pacific region associate director of the National Parks Conservation Association, disputed at least nine of the resolution's statements and forwarded an email by Fish and Wildlife Commission attorney Rick Thalhammer dated Jan. 25.

Thalhammer said the state fishing leases were contingent on federal approval of the oyster company's on-land operation, and since that was withdrawn the leases “no longer are valid and cannot be relied upon by the Company as authority to operate their aquaculture endeavor in the Estero.”

Desai said state and federal agencies had agreed that Salazar had authority to close the oyster farm “and that's the end of the story,” he said.

Sonoma's resolution is “a work of fiction,” said Amy Trainer, executive director of the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin, which has fought for removal of the oyster farm.

The farm's advocates presented “inaccurate and misleading” information to the Sonoma council to win approval of a resolution “riddled with factual inaccuracies,” she said.

The seven-year-old controversy over the oyster farm has divided neighbors in West Marin County and gained national attention, with advocates for greater commercial use of public lands jumping in on Lunny's side.

Lunny cut ties last month with one of his allies, the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Cause of Action, which had provided free legal services in his prolonged federal court battle.

Critics said the group had ties to the ultra-conservative Koch brothers. Lunny reportedly became uncomfortable when Cause of Action attacked the Public Broadcasting System over a May 1 report on the oyster farm.

Three private San Francisco law firms continue to represent the oyster farm at no cost.

On Tuesday, prominent San Francisco public relations consultant Sam Singer issued a press release on the Sonoma council's action.

Singer said he is a friend of the Lunny family who believes in their cause and is representing them for “a pittance.”

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521- 5336 or derek.moore @pressdemocrat.com or Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com.

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