On March 26, 2018, Nordic Aquafarms CEO Erik Heim sent a long email to Belfast City Manager Joseph Slocum and Belfast Economic Development Director Thomas Kittredge. In the email, Heim repeatedly expresses concern about the level of Belfast opposition to Nordic's plans to build in Belfast one of the biggest industrial salmon farms in the world. Heim hints that perhaps the level of that opposition has been downplayed to him.

“I would like an open and transparent communication on this with you,” Heim writes. “…I want to make sure that there is still strong support in the community as we continue to increase our investment in this project.”

In emails obtained under the Maine Freedom of Access Act (FOAA), Heim repeatedly expresses concern about opposition to Nordic's Belfast plans and about the accuracy of the city's portrayal of the opposition.

Were city officials misleading Heim about the extent of public opposition? Were they leading Nordic down a garden path? Would Nordic have already left Belfast if city officials had accurately portrayed opposition strength?

Slocum to Heim Feb. 6: “People are generally positive.” March 26, referring to opposition: “It is my opinion we are hearing from the minority and not the majority.”

On April 17 there was a City Council meeting at which the council made a zoning change necessary for Nordic's plans to proceed. But the meeting was contentious. Scores of project opponents packed council chambers and an adjoining anteroom and lined up by the dozen to urge the council to slow down. Project supporters were few.

Two days later, on April 19, Slocum emails Heim. Slocum touts the virtues of transparency, but two pages of a seven-page April 19 email exchange, which included Kittredge and the Belfast planning office's Wayne Marshall and Sadie Lloyd, were not released under the FOAA request. Two emails from Slocum contain no text except the words “Quoted text hidden,” and an attached letter from Heim was withheld.

What's in the two pages?

Heim may have been getting an inaccurate picture of the opposition, but in the April 19 email exchange the tone starts to change from chummy-chummy to concern on both sides. And the email paints a picture of a city government contorting itself for Nordic.

Slocum: “We have committed huge amounts of staff time, incurred significant legal costs, intervened with critical partners and governmental agencies, made extended financial commitments and shouldered the daily burden of championing your proposal to our citizens….

“The city, in less than four weeks, received 143 letters and numerous personal pleas calling for the zoning process to slow down…. In the face of this outpouring of concern, the council nevertheless again moved forward, at your request…. I cannot think of a community anywhere that has done so much, in so short a time, to advance a project….”

A community? It seems the community is opposed to the project but the City Council is barreling ahead anyway.

Later in the email: “Staff can be drafters and advocates of proposed changes in policy and regulation — even when the amendments are proposed to advance the interest of an individual developer.”

The email begs the question: For whom is the City Council working, Nordic or Belfast? And the last passage dovetails with the City Council's April 17 decision to bypass the Belfast Planning Board on its way to changing zoning. It also meshes with the City Council and city administration's vigorous efforts to permanently remove the Planning Board from such processes in the future, thus avoiding future lawsuits if and when the City Council again decides to shunt aside the Planning Board and kick Belfast citizenry to the curb.

All of which makes a mockery of assurances made to me April 29 by Belfast Mayor Samantha Paradis that the Planning Board is the best venue for judging the merits of the Nordic proposal.

But the April 19 email does little to ease Heim's apprehension about public approval. The next day Heim emails Slocum.

“I have asked a number of times if this project is right for Belfast, and I have been assured it is. We have no wish to impose ourselves on a community — I hope that our communication has been clear here from the start…. But if this overall project is likely to become entangled in local conflict and lots of new limitations all over the place then we need to have a good discussion on this…. We must be confident that there is local majority support.”

There is little basis for such confidence. A lawsuit has been filed challenging the City Council's process — or lack thereof — in approving the April 17 zoning change, and at an Aug. 7 City Council meeting, citizen after citizen sharply criticized a $14,000 report commissioned by the city to evaluate Nordic's plan. No one rose to defend the report or the Nordic project.

There is a palpable feeling that opposition to Nordic is gaining ground, and that an increasingly desperate Nordic, city government and city administration are scrambling to ram through the Nordic project before the opposition gains the upper hand. In her race for the Legislature, candidate Jan Dodge has knocked on 1,765 Waldo County doors, and she says one in six or seven (250 to 295) prospective voters saw Nordic as an important or very important issue, and of those, 80 percent opposed or leaned against the project.

This begs another question: Has Nordic's Belfast investment now become so extensive that its concerns about not being welcome by the citizenry have been shoved to the back seat?

I don't know, but there's a not-so-fine line between a city government working to attract new business, and a city government committing “huge amounts of staff time,” incurring “significant legal costs,” ignoring and downplaying widespread citizen opinion, racing through important decisions such as zoning changes despite citizen uproar, and running roughshod over carefully constructed and well established democratic processes. And clearly that line has been crossed.

Lawrence Reichard is a first-place Maine Press Association winner, freelance writer and activist who lives in Belfast.

filed under: