Planning Board asks for more oversight in new Nordic Aquafarms zone

Recommendation: Council should consider beefing up rules for groundwater, setbacks
By Ethan Andrews | Sep 06, 2018
Source: City of Belfast A new zoning district created by the City Council in April for the proposed Nordic Aquafarms development prompted a lawsuit and a retroactive Planning Board review.

Belfast — A Planning Board review of zoning for the proposed Nordic Aquafarms development culminated Sept. 5 with the board recommending changes that would increase the city's oversight of the land-based salmon farm.

Those changes apply to a new zoning district created by the City Council in April for the proposed $150 million salmon farm. The zoning change triggered a lawsuit by two abutting property owners, who allege that the council, in a rush to approve the project, skipped a required Planning Board review and improperly amended a long-term planning document after the fact to match the new zoning.

City officials have acknowledged the error but deny it was intentional. The lawsuit seeks to have the city restart the review process from the beginning, but City Attorney Bill Kelly has advised that going through the skipped steps after the fact satisfies the city's legal obligations.

Against that backdrop, the Planning Board started its retroactive review Aug. 15 with a public hearing at which the litigants held a press conference and a packed house of opponents railed against the project. At a separate meeting later that month, the board deliberated for three hours before returning Sept. 5 to make final adjustments.

The recommendations they are sending back to the City Council later this month would add a new city permit for "significant" groundwater wells, as well as significant water intake and discharge pipes.

Nordic Aquafarms would have both. The company anticipates drawing 1,200 gallons per minute of groundwater and an undisclosed amount of saltwater into its recirculating aquaculture tanks, which will be used to raise Atlantic salmon. Wastewater, in equal measure, would be discharged into the bay.

The board recommended increasing the setback from the fish farm to Route 1, requiring more vegetation in that setback zone, and removing a clause from the zoning ordinance that allows significant groundwater wells in a rural district that covers parts of the city unrelated to Nordic Aquafarms.

On Wednesday, the board spent the majority of its meeting on how to regulate groundwater extraction. Opponents of the project have expressed concerns that the salmon farm would sap Belfast's groundwater supply, causing wells at nearby residences to run dry, or worse.

The proposed Nordic Aquafarms site is largely on land that has been home to Belfast Water District; however, the city's municipal water supply comes from a sand and gravel aquifer on the opposite side of the bay.

The effect of Nordic's wells on neighboring residences is unknown. Belfast's Director of Code and Planning Wayne Marshall said that was the rationale behind adding a local permit requirement.

"The issue really gets to be the quantity and quality of groundwater that's out there and what the overall impact is to the public," Marshall said. "The intent is to give us the authority to require them (Nordic Aquafarms) to make somebody whole."

That could mean requiring the company to drill a new deep-water well for a property owner whose shallow groundwater well has run dry, he said, or extending a public water line to the affected property.

The permit would be required for permanent wells drawing more than 216,000 gallons per week. Marshall said the threshold is based on Maine Department of Environmental Protection standards and would be easily triggered by the salmon farm. At 1,200 gallons per minute, Nordic Aquafarms would use more than 12 million gallons of groundwater per week.

The new permit would require Nordic Aquafarms to state how much water it intends to use, including maximum daily and monthly rates; submit a plan showing the number and location of wells; provide a hydrological assessment report showing areas, including wells and bodies of water, that would be impacted; and project the result of extracting water during drought conditions, based on a 10-year period.

Margot Carpenter, acting chairman of the Planning Board, said the drought projections would be important because the amount of rainfall varies, from less than 40 inches in a year to 70 inches or more.

Marshall added that downpours have become more common. Heavy rains tend to run off the land rather than soaking into the soil and replenishing groundwater.

Planning Board member Geoff Gilchrist suggested that 10 years might not be enough, given the shift in weather patterns related to climate change. Others members agreed, but for lack of expertise, no one ventured to give a specific number. Marshall said the standard could be based on historic data with a multiplier to account for climate change.

A second recommendation by the board would increases the setback from Route 1 to a distance of 75 feet, as compared with 50 feet in the zoning adopted by the City Council in April. Additionally, Nordic would have to retain vegetation that exists within that setback area and supplement it with new understory plantings.

Finally, the board recommended that the council remove a clause in the amended zoning that allows significant groundwater wells in the so-called Protection Rural District, which includes several large swaths of land outside the bypass.

While Gilchrist expressed some reservations about determining the best location for major water extraction and discharge based solely on where someone asks to do it, others felt that the amounts of water that Nordic proposes to move are so much more than any other use in the city that limiting the change to the proposed salmon farm site is a sensible step.

At the request of Kelly — the city attorney — the board also offered an opinion on whether the new zoning is consistent with the city's Comprehensive Plan, both as it was amended in April, and its pre-amended form.

The board predictably found it consistent with the new Comprehensive Plan, which was revised specifically to fit the new zoning, but they did not find it consistent with the old plan. Carpenter said the conversion of a mostly undeveloped area to industrial use goes against the old plan's recommendation that the city pursue open space.

"This would have been a good candidate for it," she said.

Marshall noted that the city bought a 250-foot-wide strip along Little River that includes a walking trail, and did so specifically to preserve it.

Gilchrist said the lack of public input before the Comprehensive Plan was changed made it inconsistent with the old plan. If the public had supported changing the area to an industrial zone, he said, that would have bridged the gap.

The board signed off on the slate of recommended changes. The City Council is expected to review them at its next regular meeting Sept. 18.

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