The Planning Board on Sept. 5 will continue deliberations about a zoning amendment made earlier this year that laid the groundwork for a large, land-based salmon farm proposed by Nordic Aquafarms.

The review, which started earlier this month with a public hearing and continued Aug. 22, stems from a lawsuit against the city by residents who allege that the City Council bypassed a legally required Planning Board review when they approved the zoning amendment in April.

On Aug. 22, the Planning Board spent three hours retroactively debating the details in a discussion that at times appeared to pit the board's findings against the city's legal interests.

City Attorney Bill Kelly asked board members to look at the zoning changes without specifically considering the Nordic Aquafarms proposal.

"You can certainly consider it in context, in the sense that it's a possibility, as you could have 70 other possibilities that you think of," he said, "… but I caution you (not) to get too far down the rabbit hole in terms of what somebody said about something somebody heard, because we'll be here for weeks, and we don't have anything before us, factually."

Additionally, Kelly asked the board to give an opinion about whether the new zoning is consistent with both the old comprehensive plan and the version as amended by the City Council.

A comprehensive plan describes a municipality's long-term land use goals. Planning offices use the plan to guide zoning decisions over a period of 10 or more years. The lawsuit alleges that the council amended the plan after the fact to fit the new zoning. The plan and zoning amendments were adopted at the same meeting April 17.

The Route 1 South Business Park District, as it is known, was created by combining 40 acres under contract to Nordic Aquafarms with an existing industrial district to the north that is home to Mathews Brothers' window manufacturing plant.

The new district allows aquaculture and comes with added standards for significant groundwater wells and significant water intake and discharge pipes. City officials have said these standards give the city added regulatory authority.

Much of the discussion Aug. 22 focused on whether the new zoning is consistent with both versions of the comprehensive plan. Kelly cautioned the Planning Board to approach the question as technician comparing "words on the page," not as drafters with opinions about whether the zoning is good or bad.

As a general rule, he said, uses are considered "consistent" with the plan unless they are specifically banned in the zone. He added that case law from Maine Supreme Judicial Court supports that interpretation.

"The Law Court has had difficulty finding inconsistencies without having something akin to a prohibition," he said. "That's just what the cases say."

Several members saw the new zoning as consistent with the new comprehensive plan but not with the old one. Kelly responded by repeatedly suggesting that the board take a broader view of "consistency," but members said they felt out of their depth using the judicial definition.

"I'm not the law, and I don't have to defend it in court," Planning Board Secretary and Acting Chairman Margot Carpenter said, "but there are inconsistencies with the original comp(rehensive) plan."

She noted specifically that converting the formerly residential zone to industrial use went against the directive in the old plan to "maintain rural character and pursue open space when possible."

Speaking on Aug. 28, City Attorney Kelly said the question of whether the new zoning is consistent with both versions of the comprehensive plan is not related to the city's defense in the lawsuit.

The board did not take a final vote on specific recommendations, instead allowing the city staff to distill the conversation into recommendations that will come back to the board on Sept. 5.