Two Belfast residents are challenging the city in court to undo zoning changes made earlier this year that cleared the way for a large land-based salmon farm.

In documents filed July 11 with Belfast Superior Court, Donna Broderick and Ellie Daniels allege that city officials made procedural errors when they adopting zoning changes for the facility, which would raise Atlantic salmon for sale in Northeast markets.

Specifically, they say the council adopted zoning changes that were inconsistent with the city's comprehensive plan, then changed the plan after the fact. They further allege that the council bypassed legally required citizen participation procedures, including the appointment of a planning committee that would hold its own public hearings to solicit public comments.

Broderick and Daniels, who own a Perkins Road property abutting the 40 acres that Nordic Aquafarms proposes to develop, allege that the City Council took actions to "purposely avoid" citizen participation and Planning Board review in amending the comprehensive plan.

These actions, the suit continues, resulted in councilors "having sole responsibility for the planning process at a time when they had already taken actions that recommended the project and committed the city to expending funds and city land to the project."

The suit concludes that the city went beyond its legal home rule authority.

Nordic Aquafarms, the Norwegian aquaculture company behind the proposed $150 million facility, started meeting with city officials behind closed doors in 2017. The city and Belfast Water District inked agreements for the sale of land and water to the company before the project was made public Jan. 31 at an event attended by Gov. Paul LePage.

After the initial fanfare, some area residents raised questions and concerns about how the salmon farm would affect local freshwater supplies, what environmental risks it posed, and the potential for noise, odor and traffic related to the salmon farm.

On April 17, after a public hearing at which dozens of speakers asked the council to slow down the process, the council approved the necessary zoning changes for Nordic Aquafarms to seek various permits and submit a building application to the city.

City officials maintain that environmental questions would be better addressed by state and federal agencies in their review of Nordic Aquafarms' permit application, while noise, odor, building height, setbacks, visual buffers and other concerns will be taken up by the Planning Board.

City attorney Bill Kelly called the lawsuit a "typical not-in-my-backyard issue" and said the city "went to great lengths to invite the public to comment," including the publication of multiple notices and a mailing to neighbors. In response, Kelly said the city received comments from 150 to 200 people.

"The lawsuit is an allegation there's not enough due process," he said. "In the scheme of things, it makes more sense to address that issue, instead of litigating for three years."

To that end, the city is planning to address the issue, after the fact, at a Planning Board meeting and public hearing 6 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 15, at Troy Howard Middle School. The board is scheduled review the amendments adopted by the City Council in April.

Daniels on Aug. 7 called the meeting an "end run around the issue."

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