OPINION: The big issue

Take the proposal a day at a time; get informed to sort rumor from reality
By Belfast City Manager Joseph Slocum | May 03, 2018

Even if the proposed salmon farm has good state-of-the-art technology and, even if Nordic Aquafarms is a reputable, well-financed business that develops projects with minimal environmental impacts, there are people who will not accept this proposal under any circumstances.

Some opponents will not be satisfied if a business of this size is built anywhere in Belfast. Others might accept a Belfast location, but not this Belfast location. Still others will not accept the removal of any trees on this property at all. I respect and understand these positions, but I can’t offer them what they want.

The site uniquely fits both the interests of the Salmon Farm and the Belfast Water District. The Water District, as the land owner, supports the opportunity to sell unneeded water to the Aquafarm so that they can use the money to improve the water system. They are very dedicated to the long-term needs of their ratepayers. Nordic Aquafarms also needs the 40 acres close to the water with access to the sea and supplemental water support from the Water District.

To the folks who might be open to the possibility of this project, I offer these comments.

1. There were no secret meetings or secret deals as alleged. Every meeting was publicly announced and the posted agenda indicated discussions would be in executive session. Under the Maine Freedom of Access law, executive sessions are not open to the public. Some of those executive sessions included Nordic Aquafarms and some of them did not. Every state has laws which recognize that individuals and businesses desire to do research and maintain confidences while they investigate the possibility of new economic development, away from and outside of the observations of their own competitors. They also recognize that municipalities need to have their own confidential discussions to prepare for negotiations with any such individual or a company.

No decisions were made in executive sessions but there were strategies discussed which are often identified for consideration and negotiation purposes. We negotiate to get the best for everybody. This is why the city stepped in to preserve and protect the Little River Trail.

This is how economic development is done everywhere. Small and large businesses talk to us confidentially every day and we try to work with them in a confidential setting.

2. Are we moving rapidly? When an individual or larger business decides to try to locate somewhere new, they commonly move to do so quickly to try to seize the opportunity they want and to preserve their own competitive advantages. Nordic Aquafarms has indeed been busy drilling and investigating bedrock ground water, conducting wetland analysis, topographic analysis, vernal pool analysis, looking into site issues and evaluating local, state and federal permit issues.

They did not already have all of the answers because that research requires large investment and few investors are prepared to make that investment unless they have first secured legal options to acquire the property should their research lead to an affirmative decision to go forward. Some citizens have said they don’t have answers soon enough and, in this respect, things are not moving as quickly as they would like.

Where on the site will the buildings be located? What will the buildings look like? How tall will they be? What will the setback be? Is there sufficient ground water on the site to provide the sustainable quantity the company will need? Will the use of groundwater wells adversely impact anyone’s water supply? Where will they get their fish food? What will be the impact of the fish food? Where will the intake lines and discharge lines be located? Who will monitor this? Et cetera.

Nordic Aquafarms needed to know that, if they invest the hundreds of thousands needed to answer these questions, they could apply for a permit. There is nothing unusual or odd about that.

3. If they conclude that this project does meet their criteria, then they most likely will submit an application to the city and the Planning Board process will address and require many of the unanswered questions to now be answered. There is a whole public process and opportunity for participation with all Planning Board applications.

The zoning change that expanded the existing business zone to permit this project needed to be approved. Nordic can’t apply for state and federal permits without a site location that is zoned for aquaculture. It costs a small fortune to put together those complex state and federal permit applications and no one does this casually.

4. Nordic Aquafarms has been very responsive to us.

They announced the proposed project at a news conference Jan. 30.

They came and held a separate informational meeting at the Hutchinson Center on Feb. 21, where they answered questions from the public for over two hours.

They produced a five-page monthly update on March 23 as they were getting ready to search for fresh ground water on the site and again last Friday, April 27.

They have scheduled another public informational meeting on Wednesday, May 9, at the Hutchinson Center.

All of this, including meeting videos, is posted on the city’s website under both Economic Development and City Manager. Everything is also posted on the city’s Facebook page.

People were concerned that the beautiful old building would be torn down. Nordic responded with a desire to keep it and make it part of their brand. Two weeks later they decided to keep the dam. This certainly sounds responsive to views and concerns along Route 1.

5. Why would Belfast consider this?

We want the additional tax revenue. We hear about revenue needs and revenue pressures on taxpayers every day Broadening the tax base is economic development. After discounting the school tax loss caused by the extra valuation, the net property tax increase will be in the millions of dollars

We need to worry about our tax base. Since 2014 we have lost $418,000 in taxes caused by the vacant Bank of America buildings. The sum of $250,000 would pay a year's budget for the Fire Department. Same for Parks and Recreation. The harbor budget is $153,000 a year.

We need to broaden the tax base. The additional money can be used as the City Council sees fit.

6. What are Nordic's environmental positives?

- Producing local sustainable food generation and processing. This is a proud part of our continuing history. The technology is far kinder to the environment than ocean pens.

- They do it all indoors, which limits sound, smell and exterior light.

- They recycle 99 percent of the water used.

- They package and freeze all fish waste to be use in other products such as fish oil, fertilizer and compostable fuels. There will be not be floating fish pieces in Belfast Harbor.

- They do not use antibiotics in the fish so none go into the sea.

- They have no parasites or sea lice.

- They are separated from the ocean by land so a fish can’t escape and affect the breed of ocean salmon.

- All their fish tank waste is separated from the recycled water, treated, and the bacteria are eliminated by use of ultraviolet light. They propose to send this discharge over a mile out in the water — where it will catch strong currents to disperse it. They assert that only 1 percent of the nutrients will remain in the discharge water. None of this happens with sea pens, which is why this land-based technology is taking over. The state of Washington is moving to end ocean pens.

In contrast, the city’s own wastewater treatment plant treats all the liquids, removes bacteria by the use of chlorine, and dumps that treated liquid right back in the city’s Inner Harbor. The discharge pipe is in front of the Belfast Boatyard and it pumps 24 hours a day, every day.

In Belfast we proudly build houses that are environmentally efficient and safe by constructing a designed and controlled environment using the latest technologies. If you think about it, this company raises quality fish the exact same way.

The proposed Nordic Farms process takes place indoors where everything is also controlled. No smell, no garbage, no blazing lights, no significant traffic, low sound, and they are working on minimizing visual impacts. We hope to learn more on May 9 when the company comes back to make an updated public presentation.

The city itself is continuing its own due diligence to evaluate this proposal. We are looking to hire independent consultants to assess the financial capacity and environmental record.

We do not know if all of Nordic’s contingencies and options will ever make this project happen but we are determined to welcome their interest. I have found their CEO Erik Heim particularly forthcoming and dedicated to creating a highly desired product here that everyone will be proud of. Sometimes, even for something big, it comes down to the person who champions its opportunity.

The big issue really is that the project itself is big. Just because it's big does not mean it has big problems. We know that there are two other competitors in the country and one of them is only 20 miles away. The project in Florida just got an infusion of $80 million of investment this week. This certainly suggest there is strength in this market. If it does come here, it will be monitored all the time, just as our own sewage treatment facility is monitored by the state all the time, with mandatory lab work, daily reporting and surprise inspections.

I urge everyone to take this proposal one day at a time and also to get informed in order to sort out rumor from reality. We are always afraid of what we do not know, but there is a lot out there on the internet to learn more about land-based fish farming. We are also glad to help you with your questions in any way that we can.

Comments (1)
Posted by: Virgil Fowles Jr | May 04, 2018 09:30

THANK YOU...Mr. Slocum...I hope that some of the naysayers will respond to this as well.  You seem to have covered all the bases for those that might be concerned, except for those that don't want clean growth in Belfast at all.

The whole thing sounds like a good deal for every taxpayer and job seeker  in Belfast.



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