A proposed land-based salmon farm that would be among the largest in the world goes before the City Council Tuesday, April 17, for a final reading of zoning amendments that will either pave the way for the project or shut the door.

Nordic Aquafarms, a Norwegian aquaculture company, announced in January plans to construct an Atlantic salmon farm on 40 acres of land adjacent to Little River. The mostly undeveloped land is currently owned by Belfast Water District and an adjacent private landowner.

The company has proposed to invest $150 million to $500 million in the development.

The City Council is considering zoning amendments that would allow an aquaculture facility of the type proposed by Nordic Aquafarms to be built on the land.

Nordic Aquafarms unveiled its plans in January at an event attended by Gov. Paul LePage and city and state officials and representatives. Since then, residents have brought forward a steady stream of questions and concerns, including the potential drain on the city's water supplies, the development of now forested land, traffic, noise, environmental impact to the bay and the viability of Nordic Aquafarms' plan — and of the company itself.

The April 17 meeting represents a very preliminary step for Nordic Aquafarms, but as some residents have noted, it could be the last chance for the city to make a subjective decision to block the salmon farm.

City Planner Wayne Marshall on several occasions has spelled out the difference between the "legislative" role of the council and the "administrative" role of the Planning Board, to which review of the salmon farm would fall next.

City councilors can accept or reject zoning amendments for whatever reasons they choose, he said, and as such, public sentiment can play a role in council decisions.

The council has approved a first reading of the proposed zoning changes that would allow Nordic Aquafarms to move forward. The council's final decision, Marshall said, is directly tied to the future of the proposed fish farm.

"It's clear that if the city chooses not to change the zoning, (Nordic Aquafarms) cannot submit an application in Belfast," he said.

By contrast, the Planning Board must evaluate a building application against set criteria of the city's zoning ordinances. The process is prescribed enough that Planning Board members are instructed not to do their own research on proposals that they are reviewing.

Members of the public speaking at recent council meetings have urged councilors to slow down to give the community time to understand the pros and cons of the Nordic Aquafarms proposal.

Delaying a decision is one of four outcomes Marshall has presented to the council in advance of the April 17 meeting. The others are approving the zoning amendments as presented, rejecting them as presented, and making changes to the presented amendments.

"That's typical with any ordinance amendment," he said.

The Republican Journal met April 10 with Nordic Aquafarms CEO Erik Heim and project engineer Elizabeth Ransom of Ransom Consulting. The company is currently evaluating test wells on the site to determine the amount of freshwater on the property.

Ransom said the off-and-on weather this spring has slowed the process somewhat, but early results have been encouraging with findings of water suitable for drinking and raising fish.

"We're still in the process of analyzing that pump test data, but we're definitely seeing that there is a reasonable amount of water in the fractured bedrock," she said.

Nordic Aquafarms would use a combination of freshwater and seawater drawn from the bay, and previously signed an agreement to buy a minimum of 100 million gallons per year from Belfast Water District. Heim said there's not a specific amount of water that is needed to float the project. Rather, the development would be scaled according to how much water is available on the land.

"The approach we're taking now is a bottom-up approach," he said. "We're trying to see what do we have and then that will help us dimension things. The other thing is the zoning situation, so we understand what the final property is … once we have the data from the site we can put the pieces together." Heim anticipates being able to do that by the end of April.

A number of residents recently have voiced concern for the loss of the picturesque view of the dam and pump station from Route 1; however, Heim said the current plan is keep the dam and use the old pump station building for a visitor center. Ransom said the dam was recently inspected and is in good condition, which is what they had hoped for.

Another company, Whole Oceans, recently announced plans to build a land-based Atlantic salmon farm on the former paper mill property in Bucksport. Heim said the news doesn't affect Nordic Aquafarms' plans because of the vast gap between the amount of salmon consumed in the U.S. and the amount produced in the country.

"Actually, I think it's great if Maine gets more," Heim said. "If the seafood industry grows, that's a positive thing." He added that he would be interested in working with Whole Oceans.

Some Belfast residents have pointed to the Bucksport development as preferable because it makes use of an existing industrial site rather than developing woodlands.

Heim and Ransom said they looked at the Bucksport site but specifically wanted an undeveloped location because it would avoid the complication of tearing down unneeded buildings and equipment.

Both Heim and Ransom said they have received a steady stream of correspondence, including a large proportion of notes from people who support the development.

Nordic Aquafarms is planning to hold a public meeting about the development on May 7.

"We are in a due diligence phase," Heim said. "Just as the people of Belfast are scrutinizing us, we are scrutinizing Belfast to determine if we want to be here."

Asked if he felt welcomed, Heim said he is familiar with the process from past developments.

"It's good to have a debate," he said. "I know there's a debate going on in town. I think we'll have to summarize this when we complete the zoning and see how that process goes."

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