A Wendell Berry poem might have been the last straw for city councilors, who laid into salmon farm opponents Tuesday night after they made comments equating approvals for the project with poisoning the land and killing children.

Nordic Aquafarms, a Norwegian company that hopes to build a $150 million aquaculture facility in Belfast, wasn't on the agenda Tuesday night, but the council did consider two zoning amendments that relate to the project. Opponents used a public comment period to voice sweeping objections to the larger fish farm plan.

Joanne Moesswilde, an opponent of the project, referred back to an April 17 public hearing at which the overflow crowd logged two hours' worth of objections before the council approved zoning amendments that removed a major obstacle for Nordic Aquafarms.

Moesswilde called it "shocking" that neither the mayor nor any member of the City Council sided "with the citizens of Belfast," who asked the council to slow the approval process.

"What's Nordic Aquafarms going to ask for next?" she said, warning that it could be tax breaks, road improvements or exemptions from local regulations.

Steve Byers, a Waldo resident who operates an herbal medicine clinic in Belfast, asked councilors if they could prove that the salmon farm would be sustainable and not have a negative impact on future generations.

"What is sustainability, anyway?" he said. "Do you even know?"

Byers accused the council of giving preference to the interests of industry over those of people and the land. He read the Wendell Berry poem "Questionnaire," which begins, "How much poison are you willing to eat for the success of the free market and global trade?" and ends with the lines, "State briefly the ideas, ideals or hopes, the energy sources, the kinds of security; for which you would kill a child. Name please the children whom you would be willing to kill."

The council didn't take kindly to the suggestion that their zoning decisions amounted to sacrificing children to industry.

Councilor Neal Harkness raised his voice as he berated the two fish farm opponents. "You speak for yourselves, not for the community," he said, adding that he believes a majority of people in Belfast support the Nordic Aquafarms project.

Councilor Mike Hurley called the public comments "disgusting" and "reprehensible."

He singled out Moesswilde, whom he accused of organizing a "mob" to attend the April 17 hearing, then coming back to complain that her campaign hadn't worked. The city councilor sarcastically thanked Byers for coming from Waldo to share his opinion.

"We are not murdering children here!" he barked at Byers. "You accuse us of mortal crimes; we are not guilty."

Other councilors took a softer stance, perhaps in an attempt to cool the debate. Councilor Eric Sanders told the opponents that the city councilors are also concerned residents and have had the best interests of the city in mind when making their decisions.

Sanders voiced support for the people behind Nordic Aquafarms and said he believes the project, "if successful," will improve the environment for future generations.

Opponents have painted the proposed salmon farm as an ecological threat, while representatives of the company say land-based aquaculture is significantly better for the environment than offshore pens used in salmon farming today.

Mayor Samantha Paradis thanked the speakers for continuing to be engaged in the process, but said their comments on Tuesday night "seemed to go beyond" being respectful. Paradis placed some of the blame on the way discussion is structured at city meetings. She suggested that the opposition group invite an elected city official to attend one of its meetings.

The council approved a zoning change that drops the height limit from 50 feet to 45 feet on buildings in the newly created Route 1 Business Park South zoning district, which would be home to the Nordic Aquafarms facility. Prior to April 17, the property had no height limit. The 50-foot cap approved at that time was amended at the request of Councilor Mary Mortier.

Additionally, the council added solar panels to a list of roof features — along with chimneys, antennas and steeples — that are not counted when measuring the height of the building.

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