The passionate debate over the Nordic Aquafarms proposal for an enormous on-land fish production facility continues into its seventh month, with multiple and lengthy formal public hearings being held by the city of Belfast since March.

The proposal has generated a very active level of public discussion and debate, which is a very good thing, and which I see as an indicator of the intelligence, vibrancy and involvement of our citizens. The civility of the debate was teetering on a dangerous edge for some time, but I think it has calmed and recent hearings and rhetoric have been more respectful, at least on the surface.

However, speaking for myself and on behalf of the Belfast Area Chamber of Commerce board, we count ourselves among the people who feel that some of the concern about and opposition to the proposal is trying to inject unreasonable criteria for any proposal to have to meet in order to be acceptable.

A new business proposing to open in our city has several burdens to prove: that it will not harm our environment, will not unpleasantly impose on its neighbors, will not unduly burden our roads and utilities, and so on.

However, no business has ever had to prove that it will still be in operation 30 years from now. No new business must prove that there is a sustainable and sufficient market for its products. No business has had the city evaluate the purity or desirability of its product. (If you don’t like the product, don’t buy it!) And no new business has been judged on the maturity of its industry, so that proposals for ground-breaking technologies would be rejected because the city is not absolutely sure it will be a success.

Furthermore, a business should not be evaluated as to whether it makes a profit. All of our city’s businesses, even “not-for-profits,” strive to make more than they spend so that they can stay in business. The Green Store ostensibly needs to be profitable to stay on Main Street. So must the tattoo parlor, Alexia’s and Renys.

Nordic Aquafarms also should not be pre-judged because it is an international organization. Hannaford is part of an international corporation that makes money, much of which stays in this community — but a good amount also leaves to go into the pockets of people from away. Does that mean Hannaford cannot operate in our city? Does it mean we don’t want Hannaford's jobs or taxes?

Does size matter? Bank of America is very large; should it be prohibited from expanding or even asked to leave? How about athenahealth? Camden National is the largest bank in northern New England. If they work hard to fit into our community, I think it is not a mark against them.

Likewise, an applicant should not be held to resolving our workforce shortage concerns, or assuring adequate middle class housing for Belfast. I feel these are the city, state and federal government’s responsibility to address, with help from businesses of all sizes, and should not be the price of admission to our community.

Of course, there are important and well-established criteria that this project will be held to: noise, traffic, parking, environmental pollution, light pollution, visual buffering, impermeable ground coverage limits, and so on. That is why we need to proceed with developing and codifying sound criteria for rigorously evaluating these impacts as required by law.

I’ve watched the city change zoning on many occasions to accomplish its goals. We need to approve these changes and proceed to examine the relevant, important and fair criteria to be applied to the development. Our community should not be swayed to contrive criteria for this project that introduce new and unfair measures of acceptability.

The Belfast Area Chamber of Commerce endorses the Planning Board and the city of Belfast moving ahead with reasonable Comprehensive Plan and zoning amendments that will enable the city and our residents to fully evaluate and shape the final proposal.

Steve Ryan is executive director of the Belfast Area Chamber of Commerce.

Editor's Note: While Steve Ryan is chairman of the Belfast Planning Board, he has recused himself from all voting on Nordic Aquafarm issues before the board, and in his Planning Board capacity does not attend or participate in any related meetings, discussions or workshops.

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