Planning Board begins Nordic review

By Stephanie Grinnell | Aug 06, 2019
Photo by: Stephanie Grinnell Nordic Aquafarms employees seated in the front row look on as Belmont resident Paul Bernacki breaks into Planning Board deliberations on the company's application.

Belfast — The first Planning Board hearing on Nordic Aquafarms’ application started off with a tense exchange between city officials and an attorney representing those opposed to the proposed land-based salmon farm.

Early in the meeting, members of the audience were asked if there were any perceived conflicts by Planning Board members that might require recusal. At that time, attorney Kim Ervin Tucker attempted to make a statement objecting to City Attorney Bill Kelly being an adviser to the Planning Board but she was quickly shut down by Director of Codes and Planning Wayne Marshall.

“Do you have a conflict with any member of the Board?” he asked repeatedly.

Acting Planning Board Chairman Declan O’Connor noted all written submissions are part of the public record, including a letter from Ervin Tucker objecting to Kelly’s role in the process. He, too, asked if she wished to make any objection to board members.

“Mr. Kelly is not a member,” Ervin Tucker said.

No written objections beyond Ervin Tucker’s were received, Marshall said. Nordic attorney Joanna Tourangeau said there were no objections from Nordic to any Planning Board members.

The meeting also was interrupted by Belmont resident Paul Berkacki, who broke into board deliberations by marching to the front of the room, waving papers and demanding that Nordic President Erik Heim identify signors of redacted release deeds included in the application. He was not acknowledged by board members or Heim.

The scene unfolded as the issue of title, right and interest was being discussed. The issue has been at the center of objections by some opponents, who say the intertidal area in front of the Eckrote property is actually owned by neighbors Jeffrey Mabee and Judith Grace. When planning how to address Nordic’s applications, the Planning Board decided to accept only written comment on TRI, about which it received hundreds of pages from both sides of the issue. Marshall read off a list of the multiple submissions on TRI, all provided to the Planning Board in advance of the meeting.

“There’s a lot there,” O’Connor said. “We will rely on assistance from Bill Kelly.”

Kelly outlined actions taken at the state level to date, focusing on the “low bar” of title, right and interest the board should follow.

“You have before you a lot of material; I’ve read all of it,” he said. “ … You just need to decide if there’s enough proof they can use the land to proceed with the application. … It is my opinion that there is sufficient right, title and interest to move forward.”

Kelly said a court will have to sort out the conflicting information from both sides and make a legal determination of ownership. He estimated the legal process — a lawsuit has been filed by Mabee and Grace against the Eckrotes and Nordic seeking to stop placement of the pipes across the intertidal land — could take up to two years. Kelly cautioned it is not the city’s or the board’s place to step in and ask the courts to speed the process.

“This is purely a private property dispute,” he said. “We, the city, have no, we’re not involved in any way.”

Board members all admitted being somewhat overwhelmed by the amount of information provided by both sides about title, right and interest. Geoff Gilchrist said he bounced back and forth with his opinion based on which side he was reading.

“I definitely felt out of my, um, it’s not in my skill set to make that decision,” he said.

O’Connor agreed.

“It started to put me cross-eyed,” he said, “and I was deep in the weeds.”

Board member David Bond wondered if the Planning Board could delay addressing the application as the court process plays out.

“It sounds to me like we could proceed,” he said, “but the question is, do we want to move ahead?”

Kelly clarified that the board must address applications it receives and Marshall said Nordic has asked to move forward.

“The prime burden is on the applicant,” Marshall said.

Ultimately, a majority of board members agreed there is sufficient evidence of title, right and interest to move forward with the application. Alternate Planning Board member Daisy Beal, who was chosen to vote on the Nordic application because Chairman Steve Ryan has recused himself, was the only member who voted against the motion.

Planning Board members granted “party in interest” status to several groups and individuals, and denied two such requests. Parties in interest are granted a higher status during proceedings that the general public because they are more likely to be harmed by the development. Approved were Mabee and Grace; Upstream Watch, a group that includes abutters and those concerned for the health of the bay; Maine Lobstering Union; David Black and Wayne Canning, both lobstermen; Constance Brown of Northport, who owns property that would be affected; and Ellie Daniels and Donna Broderick, landowners on Perkins Road, which abuts the Nordic parcel. Parties in interest also have the right to appeal Planning Board decisions to the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals.

Board members rejected the requests of Belfast resident Jim Merkel and Northport resident Mike Lannin as not meeting the threshold. A letter from Drummond Woodsum law offices objected to granting the status to Black and Canning.

Heim presented Nordic’s financial capability in a slideshow. Planning Board members took no firm vote on whether the company meets the guidelines for approval.

Heim said most company investors are in Norway but said there has been some interest in the U.S. from investors and banks. While no firm financing has been secured, Heim said past investors in European projects are expected to contribute to the Belfast project, including large shipping family Rasmussengruppen AS. He said the company also will look into state and federal incentives.

During the public hearing on financial capability, Belfast resident Linda Buckmaster urged board members to include financial requirements to protect the city in case of the company’s failure.

“There’s no financial protection at this point,” she said.

Holly Faubel of Belfast offered some questions she hopes the board will get answers to, ranging from how much the Norwegian parent company is contributing to the Belfast project and if performance bonds will be required.

Marshall also pointed board members to a written comment submitted by vocal opponent and Belfast resident Lawrence Reichard about the company’s financials.

Heim rebuffed information floating around that the company has yet to sell its first fish. He said there are three companies affiliated with Nordic in Europe currently selling salmon and other fish.

“Things are happening fast,” Heim said. “ … Obviously, now there’s a lot of uncertainty in Belfast. … The loss of time, it’s a high cost. … But we remain committed to Belfast.”

That uncertainty has slowed investment in the project, he said, adding there have been some “costly hurdles” here as well. However, with permits in hand, Heim said, he will be able to prove the company’s ability to move forward.

“It’s a matter of trust with investors and the board,” he said.

At one point during the discussions, several members of the public sought to be recognized to speak, but O’Connor declined, stating the public hearing portion had been closed. Kelly stepped in and said because new information was being presented, the board could allow additional public comment.

“That’s usually not our process,” O’Connor said.

Marshall added the board has “never done it” that way in the past.

“You have my advice,” Kelly countered.

Additional public comment was accepted. David Sprague asked if money will be required to be set aside for Route 1 reconstruction. Marshall said the conditional permit issued by the city will include certain requirements that have not yet been determined.

The hearing was stopped a few minutes before 9 p.m. so the Planning Board could hash out its next meeting topics. The next meeting addressing the Nordic application is scheduled for Monday, Aug. 19, at 6 p.m. at UMaine Hutchinson Center in Belfast. Topics on the agenda will be advertised in advance but will include technical ability, which was on the Aug. 5 agenda but not discussed, as well as visual impacts, buffers and noise.

 

City Attorney Bill Kelly, left, explains a point to Planning Board members Aug. 5 as City Director of Codes and Planning Wayne Marshall listens. (Photo by: Stephanie Grinnell)
Comments (1)
Posted by: Eric Schrader | Aug 08, 2019 05:18

Oh boy, here we go with the Big Circus from all the Boo Birds, now even coming from outside of Belfast. Jim Merkel, the failed Ward 5 candidate for City Council always seems to insert himself into the NAF discussion along with Lawrence Reichard . Wayne Marshall needs to impose a zero tolerance position for any of these tree huggers who are going to be at every meeting looking for ways to disrupt the proceedings. Anyone violating pre-established rules should be given one warning, then banned from the proceedings. This forum is tailor made for disruption. Any non-Belfast or non-Northport residents have no standing in this matter, so they need to be silent spectators.



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