Taylor Shellfish files federal suit against Washington DNR
Taylor Shellfish Farms of Shelton, Wash., on Tuesday filed a federal lawsuit against the Washington Department of Natural Resources, the latest step in an ongoing dispute over what the shellfish farmer claims is a breach of contract regarding a lease to raise geoducks on state lands.
The federal suit seeks to establish the validity of a substitution clause in its deed to tidelands in Totten Inlet. Last week, Taylor Shellfish filed a lawsuit in Thurston County Superior Court against Washington Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark, who earlier this month refused to sign a previously negotiated lease agreement that would have allowed Taylor Shellfish to grow geoducks (large burrowing clams, Panopea abrupta) on disputed property.
According to company President Bill Taylor, the company not only gave up its ownership claims to the property in the settlement but also gave up its right of substitution in the Totten Inlet deed. Taylor said the result of this suit could have "far-reaching consequences" for shellfish growers.
"If DNR is correct in their assertion that Taylor only owns the upper beach, then the area that the company owns is not suitable for oyster cultivation. Under Taylor's deed, if the lands are not actually suitable for growing oysters, Taylor has the right to obtain substitute tidelands from the state that are suitable for that purpose," said Taylor.
The company has farmed shellfish in the area since 1969 and always maintained its ownership of the property, but a recent survey indicated that Washington's largest shellfish grower was inadvertently trespassing on state-owned lands.
According to Taylor Shellfish spokesman Bill Dewey, the tidelands in question contain about 300,000 geoducks, some of which are ready to harvest now and others that won't be ready for five years, as well as 240,000 oysters.
On 12 January, Taylor signed a five-year lease agreement to farm shellfish on the tidelands with Doug Southerland, the former commissioner who left office the following day. Goldmark says the public was "shut out" of the approval process, a claim the company denies.
Taylor had agreed to forfeit its ownership claims to the property if DNR decided to lease 21 acres to Taylor for five years to harvest shellfish already planted on the land. According to the agreement, Taylor, which donated more than USD 3,500 (EUR 2,700) to Sutherland's failed re-election campaign, would not have to pay fines without the five-year lease.
In addition, Taylor agreed to pay USD 480,838 (EUR 377,772) in back rent plus leasehold excise tax, interest and USD 53,241 (EUR 41,829) of staff time reimbursement totaling USD 629,762 (EUR 494,565); pay USD 200,000 (EUR 157,064) to the Geoduck Aquaculture Research Account for Washington Sea Grant to conduct research of geoduck farming practices at the site, bringing the total to USD 829,762 (EUR 651,574); and pay an estimated USD 500,000 (EUR 392,627) in additional rent over the course of the next five years.
Taylor Shellfish filed its Thurston County Superior Court suit to assert its quiet title claim of ownership of the disputed property. The legal process of determining ownership of the property will likely take at least a year, according to Dewey.
Taylor Shellfish claims Goldmark's decision to not honor the agreement constitutes breach of contract and violates Washington's SEPA (State Environmental Policy Act) law that requires public input be considered in the decision to lease state property to Taylor Shellfish. Taylor is joined in the suit by Helen Senff, who owns property in Totten Inlet that she leases to the company.
Taylor Shellfish is also seeking unspecified damages because it has been restricted from planting or harvesting its crops.
"We have already missed one planting season on the farm and we have suffered significant damages," Taylor said. "We need to move forward with a legal resolution of this dispute as expeditiously as possible to reduce future losses."