Six candidates for three open seats on the City Council traded views in front of a packed Boathouse Oct. 22 at a forum hosted by Belfast Community Radio.

While they divided over the salmon farm, a $150-million land-based aquaculture facility proposed by Nordic Aquafarms, the debate itself was less heated than other recent meetings about the development.

In Ward 1, write-in candidate Ellie Daniels is challenging Councilor Mary Mortier. In Ward 2, Joanne Moesswilde is challenging Councilor Neal Harkness. And in Ward 5 Paul Dean is competing with write-in candidate Jim Merkel for an open seat.

Less than a week before the forum, the City Council affirmed a zoning amendment that would allow Nordic Aquafarms to apply for a building permit with the city and continue seeking state and federal permits.

The council's unanimous 5-0 vote went against the overwhelming majority of public comment to date, including some from challengers for City Council seats, who delivered their views on Monday night from the same side of the table as the officials with whom they previously faced off.

Speaking at the forum, incumbents Mary Mortier and Neal Harkness stood by their votes on grounds that the city needs the property tax revenue from the facility.

Where they stand on the salmon farm

Mortier, who is seeking a fourth term representing Ward 1, said property owners might not see a tax cut from the salmon farm but the added revenue could hold taxes down as other costs increase, "so we can take care of what we need to take care of."

Harkness, who is running for a third term from Ward 2, said the council's vote was necessary to get to the actual details of the salmon farm proposal, which will come out during a long permitting process with state and federal agencies. He described the council's action as forward-thinking.

"We have always changed and adapted," Harkness said. "We're not going to start fearing the future now."

Paul Dean, who is running for City Council for the first time, gave qualified support to the salmon farm and expressed an interest in keeping an open mind, while making some attempt to distinguish himself from the other non-incumbents. He focused on past service, including 11 years on the city's Comprehensive Plan Committee and almost perfect attendance at council meetings in the last two years.

"I did that so I could learn the process and best serve the Belfast taxpayers, if elected," he said.

Opponents saw the council's decision to let the process move ahead as a step backward.

Daniels, whose residence backs up to the proposed salmon farm site, called the city's process to date "a symptom of diminishing democratic process in our city." The Ward 1 challenger has a lawsuit pending against the city over procedural errors in a zoning amendment that has allowed Nordic Aquafarms to continue.

Merkel, who opposes the salmon farm, said the city he loves is at a crossroads and at risk of "again trying to anchor our economy on a too-big-to-fail industry."

Moesswilde voiced opposition to the salmon farm and attributed some of the problem to breakdown in communication between the council and public.

Climate change (and the salmon farm)

An audience question about climate change offered a springboard for candidates on both sides of the salmon farm debate.

Daniels described water as "the new oil" and cautioned that watersheds feeding local aquifers aren't as efficiently replenished by the types of storms that have become common as a result of climate change. Nordic Aquafarms anticipates pumping 1,200 gallons per minute from deep groundwater wells, which Daniels connected to another facet of climate change.

"An industry that needs to pump 24/7 to keep fish alive is very carbon intensive," she said.

Harkness took a different view, saying the city will need to "build things" to hold back rising water levels.

"That's going to require revenue," he said. "We're going to need to find revenue to address these issues."

What would change your mind?

In response to an audience question challenging all candidates to say what would change their mind on the salmon farm, some listed their conditions, while others doubled down.

The three opponents, Daniels, Moesswilde and Merkel, each said they might consider a much smaller version with less environmental impact. Moesswilde said she is open to watching the process and learning.

"Maybe it will be great,” she said, “but it seems like there are so many opportunities for it to be a problem that I'm very cautious and concerned for the well-being of all of us and of Belfast."

Harkness took himself out of the company of supporters, saying he hasn't supported the salmon farm because the council has not approved a plan. What he has supported is the process of letting it go forward to the next steps, he said.

Dean likewise said he's waiting for more information and would "vote against it in a heartbeat" if he found that it would hurt Belfast.

Mortier reiterated that she wants to see the process go forward. She referred to her past work traveling in clothing manufacturing, which she said gave her a global perspective on economic development.

Is there more to city government than salmon farms?

While Daniels, Moesswilde and Merkel have all said they joined the race because of the salmon farm, all three spoke easily about other topics.

Candidates mostly saw eye-to-eye on short-term rentals (complicated but probably needing some regulation), city funding for the library (worthy of city support), and the need for more affordable housing and the importance of making Belfast a place where young people want to live (better, more meaningful jobs and cheaper housing).

Throughout the debate, candidates returned to certain themes.

Harkness positioned himself as an advocate for poor residents in Belfast, who need tax relief. Moesswilde returned frequently to wanting better communication between city officials and the public.

Mortier highlighted her experience in city government and pragmatism. Daniels said Belfast is at a "critical juncture" and can either nurture its many strengths or repeat the mistake of looking to an outside savior.

Dean described himself as a conduit for the interests of constituents, open to ideas outside of his own knowledge. Merkel spoke often of improvements for cyclists and pedestrians and restoring the wild fisheries.

About 150 people attended the forum. At the close of the event, moderator Linda Lord, a former Brooks selectman and member of the League of Women Voters, said she initially was hesitant to moderate, having heard of the controversy, but ended up wanting to run for City Council herself.

"And I'll tell you why," she said. "The civility and courtesy I have witnessed in this room tonight is absolutely superb. And if I may make a political comment, would that all levels of government be as civil and kind as you people have been tonight."

The forum was recorded by Belfast Community Radio (WBFY 100.9 FM and and Belfast Community Television (BCTV and will be broadcast several times before Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 6.

Watch the video of the forum by Belfast Community Television here.