The 1994 lease between Flower and the town—which Berger and the baymen dispute the legitimacy of, since it was signed by Franklin B. Flower and by neither of the company’s current owners—states the yearly rent due as $14.47 per acre for 1,829.8 acres through September 2024, with adjustments every three years “to reflect increases in the cost of living.” In comparison, the Town of Islip last year announced a shellfish aquaculture program in the Great South Bay with leases available for $750 an acre.
If Flower was charged similar fair market rates for their leases, argue the baymen, the additional funds could go to any number of taxpayer subsidies, such as lowering property taxes. By their reckoning, Oyster Bay would get $1.4 million for the same acreage that Flower now pays an estimated $40,000—that’s with a more than 50 percent rate hike since 1994 factored in.
In a recent interview, Oyster Bay Town Supervisor John Venditto, who was the town attorney that represented the township in the baymen’s original litigation, referred all further questions regarding the baymen’s latest lawsuit to Jim Moriarty, his spokesman. Subsequently, a detailed list of questions for Venditto was sent to Moriarty—including requests for much of the information sought by Painter as well as a follow-up interview with the supervisor—but the town did not respond as of press time.
Questioned about the dispute two months ago by a Press reporter, the supervisor said:
“Flower is the sine qua non,” which roughly translates to “without which not.”
“What I think the bottom line on the answer’s going to be is that there’s this image of Flower that somehow they have monopolized the seed harbor arrangement,” Venditto explained. “I understand that. The other side of the coin is if it weren’t for Flower, I don’t know if there would be any oysters.
“I don’t know if we would be able to maintain the harbor and make it as productive as it is without Flower,” he added. “I believe that’s the bottom line.”
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Flower deferred all questions for this article to their attorney, Gary Ettelman, founding partner of Garden City-based Ettelman & Hochheiser, P.C., who categorically denied and dismissed all the baymen’s claims, as well as the legitimacy of their latest litigation.
“We’re confident that the claims that they’ve asserted—since they’re the same claims that they asserted 20 years ago—were resolved 20 years ago, and involved issues that were completed by the Flower Company and town over 20 years ago, and were done,” says Ettelman. “So we expect it’ll be dismissed.
“The fact is this is pure and simple harassment,” he adds. “Total harassment.”
Painter, the baymen group’s president Jim Schultz, and fellow baymen Bill Fetzer, Fred Menges and Craig Oddo—all named as plaintiffs in the current litigation—profess that what the whole dispute really boils down to is protecting their way of life for the next generation of baymen.
“Flower says they put the oyster back in Oyster Bay, but they put the oysters on their own leases for themselves. They don’t put any back to the public,” says Schultz. “There’s millions and millions of dollars’ worth of shellfish coming out of this bay and it goes into the three owners’ pockets. You’ve got a good, clean, productive bay here. There’s 70 licensed baymen that work on it, part-time, full-time, that deserve a better shake than what’s going on.”
“This is David versus Goliath,” adds the baymen’s Huntington-based attorney Darrin Berger.