News that one of the world's largest land-based salmon farms might be built in Belfast met with a fair amount of skepticism amid the celebration at a grand unveiling last month. Since then, critics have continued to press for details.

A public meeting on the sale of land owned by the Belfast Water District land for the development will be held at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, March 15, at the Belfast Boathouse, 34 Commercial St.

Nordic Aquafarms, a Norwegian aquaculture company, plans to invest between $150 million and $500 million in the new facility where salmon would be raised from eggs to eight-pound fish for sale to markets in the Northeast United States.

The facility would be built on 40 acres next to Little River, on property purchased from the Belfast Water District and one private landowner. Nordic Aquafarms is currently testing the property for groundwater capacity and carrying out other due diligence to determine whether the project can go forward.

On March 6, several residents raised concerns to city councilors, who would later consider zoning changes necessary for the aquaculture facility.

Joanne Moesswilde of Belfast asked the council rhetorically who stood to benefit more — the city of Belfast or Nordic Aquafarms — and wondered if the Norwegian company might be getting the better end of the deal. She raised concerns about noise, light and visual pollution, but reserved her strongest objections for the loss of undeveloped land.

"Something about changing green space into industrial space to grow fish on land, it just doesn't feel right to me," Moesswilde said.

Karin Spitfire of Belfast saw a similar perversion of the natural order, motivated by "greed, short-sightedness and the need for expediency."

"The paradigm that allows us to consider a land-based salmon farm not only plausible but good economic sense is the same one that created the fact that we don't have a sustainable fishery of wild Atlantic salmon and cod, now," she said.

Spitfire said she asked city officials how deeply they looked into the technology touted by Nordic Aquafarms, along with the company's finances, before inking a deal. She also expressed concern that the land deals were made behind closed doors, and that opposing the zoning changes now before the City Council was the last chance to stop the development.

Several neighbors of the Water District property spoke against what they expect to be a blight on the picturesque landscape around Little River. Former City Councilor Larry Theye lives across the road from Water District property and praised the views both toward the bay and inland toward Little River. He called the entrance to Belfast on Route 1 from Northport, with views of the dam and pump house on one side and the bay on the other, "arguably the most pristine area in the entire city of Belfast."

City Councilor Neal Harkness later addressed Theye's remarks, saying that there has to be a balance.

"I'm sensitive to Larry's concerns about the view from his home," Harkness said. "I'm also sensitive to people who can't afford a home."

Sid Block, a Northport resident whose home faces Little River reservoir, asked city councilors to keep a measure of control over the land, either by leasing — rather than selling — to Nordic Aquafarms, or by attaching covenants to the sale to protect the land.

The facility proposed in broad strokes by Nordic Aquafarms would not be allowed under current zoning laws. As a remedy, City Planner Wayne Marshall suggested expanding an industrial zone that surrounds the nearby Mathews Brothers window-making factory to take in the fish farm land, and adding "land-based aquaculture" to the list of allowed uses.

Marshall asked the council to consider changing the ordinance to allow deep groundwater wells in the city's shoreland zoning areas, which would give Nordic Aquafarms a larger area in which to prospect for fresh water. Additionally, he recommended setting a height limit of 50 feet for the district — currently, there is no height limit — and increasing the standard to allow up to 70 percent of the lot to be covered by buildings, parking lots and other impervious surfaces, up from 65 percent.

Addressing some of the concerns of residents, Marshall said the details of how the facility, including its appearance, lighting and any increase in traffic can't be known at this stage of the development.

"I don't have any drawings of what this thing looks like," he said. "No one does. The company does not have a right to submit a permit application today … (they) cannot submit an application until the city changes the zoning."

City councilors took up some of the concerns of residents.

Councilor John Arrison asked about a safety clause to prevent another business from buying the rezoned land from Nordic Aquafarms for a different use in the event the fish farm falls through. Marshall said the zoning amendments could have a sunset provision, but he noted that the council has the authority to change the zoning ordinance at any time.

Councilor Mike Hurley said the city hasn't reviewed Nordic Aquafarms' finances, but he noted the upside of up to $48 million in new taxes. Not taking into account any changes to the state's education funding, which Hurley said probably would be significant, the new revenue would cut the city's tax rate in half, from 22 — dollars per $1,000 of property value — to 11, he said.

"That's my motivation," he said. "That's my only motivation."

The March 6 discussion was not part of the formal zoning ordinance amendment process, but rather an introduction. A first reading with a public hearing will be held at the next regular City Council meeting March 20. A second reading with a public hearing is tentatively scheduled for April 17.

Marshall said the zoning amendments would open the door for Nordic Aquafarms to submit an application, at which point it would be reviewed by the Planning Board. He invited comments sent by mail to Wayne Marshall, Belfast City Hall, 131 Church St., Belfast, ME 04915, by email to wmarshall@cityofbelfast.org, or by phone to 338-1417, ext. 125.

As of March 12, Marshall said he had not received any additional comments about the proposed zoning changes.

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