Opponents of a proposed $150 million land-based salmon farm on Aug. 15 asked city officials to "restart," "reset," and "press the reset button" on the process that paved the way for the facility.

A public hearing on Wednesday night came in response to a lawsuit by two Belfast residents, Ellie Daniels and Donna Broderick, who allege the City Council skipped required steps in a rush to approve zoning changes to accommodate the developer, Nordic Aquafarms.

Nordic Aquafarms inked land deals earlier this year to buy 42 acres near Little River for the salmon farm. The facility would be one of the largest land-based aquaculture facilities in the world and is projected to produce 33,000 tons of salmon each year for markets on the East Coast.

The company has touted land-based aquaculture as a more environmentally responsible alternative to ocean pen farming, and the City Council has endorsed the project for the tax revenue it is expected to bring.

Opponents have focused on potential threat to groundwater supplies and the effect of wastewater discharged into the bay.

In April, the City Council approved zoning amendments that got the ball rolling for the fish farm. However, Daniels and Broderick contend the Planning Board is legally required to weigh in on proposed zoning changes and hold a public hearing first. Additionally, they say the new zoning is inconsistent with the city's comprehensive plan, which was then revised after the fact.

The error is significant, they say, because it came at a time when residents were asking the city to slow down the approval process to allow more time for public debate. City Attorney Bill Kelly has said the case could take years to make its way through the courts, but on Wednesday attorney Bruce McGlauflin, who represents Daniels and Broderick, said it could be settled sooner, "or expedited."

City officials have acknowledged that they skipped steps but say the missing meetings, including the public hearing on Wednesday, can be made up after the fact. Several speakers on Wednesday argued that the Planning Board, taking up the question now, would feel pressured to affirm the vote already taken by the council.

City Attorney Kelly and City Planner Wayne Marshall at the public hearing Wednesday night tried to head off some concerns of opponents, who appeared to make up the majority of the 150 people in attendance.

Kelly said the Planning Board's role is "not political." Marshall noted that most of the zoning changes approved in April are consistent with nearby districts or — in the case of setbacks, buffer zones and impervious surface limits — more restrictive.

"We do not view it internally as that much of an expansion from what's out there," he said.

Additionally, he said, new performance standards for significant groundwater wells and significant water intake and discharge from the bay, would give the Planning Board authority to regulate aspects of a project that previously were outside its jurisdiction.

Public comments from 23 attendees, 18 of whom either wanted to restart the zoning process or outright opposed the Nordic Aquafarms plan, ran close to three hours. Marshall said the city received 22 written comments before the meeting. Several speakers identified themselves as having also submitted written comments.

Amid familiar faces of opponents who have spoken past public hearings were several younger residents, recently arrived in Belfast and new to the Nordic Aquafarms debate, who voiced concerns about the global implications of the project.

Samantha Langlois referred to Nestle's water extraction in Maine and the state's weak water laws and urged the board not to give the city's resources to an international corporation. Langlois said her family hails from Belfast but moved away when the bay was filled with pollution from poultry processing plants. She moved back to the area two years ago expecting that Belfast would be a place for her children to stay when they grow up, "not leave."

Ethan Hughes, who moved to the city two months ago, sat his young daughter on the lectern at the center of the middle school cafeteria and said the city is pursuing money at the expense of water, which has become scarce in some parts of the world.

"What would we rather have, money or water?" he asked. "Nordic Aquafarms knows freshwater is scarce. They're not dumb. They're a multimillion-dollar company. They're coming to Waldo County to get our fresh water … When we are thirsty and need to grow food, we will realize money is useless."

When Hughes had used his allotted five minutes, he argued with moderator Margot Carpenter of the Planning Board, and appealed to the crowd that he should have more time to speak.

Members of the audience cheered in approval, and Hughes said it was "the will of the people" that he should speak longer, adding that Carpenter could "bring the police in and arrest me if you want." When Hughes continued, the crowd turned on him. After some protesting, he handed over the microphone.

Planning Board Chairman Steve Ryan, who recused himself from deliberations, spoke at the meeting on behalf of the Belfast Area Chamber of Commerce where he is the executive director. Ryan said the chamber is not taking an official position on the Nordic Aquafarms proposal, but he said he would be concerned if the board decided to take an "emotional" stance toward large corporations or GMOs.

Maria Jacobs and Neil Davis, a couple who are new to the area, said they had seen what big industry has done in other places. Jacobs urged a "restart." Davis said he has "watched big industry devour life as we know it on this planet," and was initially turned off but now has found a calling in resistance.

The Planning Board postponed deliberations until its next regular meeting 6 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 22, with the location to be determined. City Planner Wayne Marshall said the decision was made before the hearing to clear the decks for public comments.

That news appeared to upset some in attendance, but the meeting adjourned without incident.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly listed the amount of salmon to be produced at the Nordic Aquafarms facility in Belfast.

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