A bitter standoff between the public and City Council over a proposed land-based salmon farm eased up Sept. 25, as opponents voiced familiar concerns in ways that city officials appeared open to hearing.

The meeting at Troy Howard Middle School was nominally about zoning, and whether the city should retroactively adopt Planning Board recommendations for a new zoning district created by the council to accommodate the proposed development by Nordic Aquafarms.

The council created the district, known as the Route 1 South Business District, in April over objections from residents, who wanted to slow the approval process. The move triggered a lawsuit by two residents who claimed the city skipped steps, including a required Planning Board review, and should start over.

The city acknowledged the errors but opted to make up the missing steps after the fact rather than restart from the beginning.

The Planning Board proposed several tweaks to the new zone, including an added layer of city oversight for significant groundwater wells, and significant water intake and discharge pipes.

Water has been a major concern among opponents of the salmon farm, who fear the facility will drink up the city's water supply for use in its recirculating aquaculture tanks, then pump the used water, with some amount of pollution, into the bay where it could threaten the local marine ecosystem and fishery.

Nordic Aquafarms CEO Erik Heim has said the company chose Belfast for its supply of clean seawater, and the company has reported finding sufficient fresh groundwater in test wells drilled over the last six months. Heim has also expressed confidence that wastewater would be treated to a higher standard than would be required by law.

Several speakers on Tuesday accused Nordic of simply wanting to use city's resources at whatever cost, as some past industries have. Samantha Langlois of Belfast pointed to Maine's lack of regulations on aquaculture and groundwater extraction.

Maine is one of three states that uses the "absolute dominion" rule for groundwater, which allows a property owner to extract unlimited water, irrespective of its effect on neighboring properties. Indiana and Texas are the other two, Langlois said.

"Indiana doesn't have a lot of ocean; Texas doesn't have a lot of water," she said. "That leaves us."

Prior to the Planning Board's recommendations, city officials had said water was outside their jurisdiction and would be regulated by state and federal agencies.

Christopher Hyk of Belfast warned against relying on the state Department of Environmental Protection to look out for the city. The department, he said, was gutted under former Commissioner Patricia Aho, who served from 2011 to 2015.

"I'm sure they would approve a thermonuclear abattoir on my front lawn," he said.

Joanne Moesswilde, a candidate for City Council in Ward 2, called for a referendum on the salmon farm. Other speakers seconded the idea of putting the $150 million development out to a public vote.

The hearing also brought out a fair number of young residents who have recently moved to the city.

Robyn Duffy said her recent readings about leadership "from Forbes to Zen Buddhist" showed a recurring strength among good leaders is the ability to admit to being wrong. Duffy asked the councilors if they ever wake up at night with doubts, and she encouraged them to consider changing their minds.

"I don't want to say you're wrong," she said, "but is it possible that you might be?"

Dick Faegre, one of a small number of attendees to speak favorably of the salmon farm, turned Duffy's question back on opponents, adding that he, too, is still trying to figure it out.

"I don't know," he said. "I'm not an opponent. I'm not a proponent. I don't have enough information, so I'm waiting to hear more."

Information seemed to be a gray area. Supporters shared a wealth of research and urged the city to vet Nordic Aquafarms more thoroughly. City officials responded that they could only go so far without knowing exactly what Nordic Aquafarms is proposing. Company officials have made statements but have yet to file permit or building applications that would include specific details about the project.

Barry Crawford of Monroe said he had initially "compartmentalized" opponents as young, hailing from out of state and well-intentioned but not yet in sync with their adopted community.

"In these last few meetings, what I've learned from you people has been an eye-opener," he said, adding, "I don't see a balance (of support and opposition), but I see a lot of good information."

Several speakers asked the council to bring in independent experts to look at potential impacts of the salmon farm. The city commissioned a study earlier this year that was panned by members of the public for using sources close to Nordic Aquafarms or with investments in aquaculture.

City councilors appeared open to getting outside views in a way that they haven't been to date. Several said they have researched the topic on their own and have thought about water supplies and the potential environmental impact of the salmon farm.

Councilor Eric Sanders said he didn't think the salmon farm proposal had been "rammed through" as some suggested.

"And part of the reason is the people in this room," he said. "It's a circle."

Councilor Mary Mortier thanked speakers for their "respectful, knowledgeable comments."

"It goes in deeper to your heart and soul and gut than some of the expression that was given at the April meeting," she said.

If there were more open concessions by the council on Sept. 25, not everyone was seeing it.

Jim Merkel, an outspoken opponent of the salmon farm, who announced on Tuesday that he is running for City Council in Ward 5 as a write-in candidate, told the council he didn't see them seeking out independent expert opinions and didn't see anything changing.

After the meeting, he said the council appears to be moving ahead without acknowledging any of the points raised by members of the public.

"What this community is asking is for the council to go back to before they invited Nordic to town," he said. "That's what the community is begging for."

The council unanimously approved a first reading to adopt the Planning Board recommendations that strengthen the oversight of water use and discharge. A second reading and public hearing will be held at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 9, at Troy Howard Middle School.

Editor's note: This article has been updated to correct the date of the second public hearing.

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