The City Council gave a vote of confidence to a proposed large-scale salmon farm April 17, unanimously approving zoning changes the business needs over objections from an overflow crowd of residents who urged the city to wait.

Norway-based Nordic Aquafarms has proposed to build one of the world’s largest land-based aquaculture facilities on Route 1. The facility, estimated to cost $125 million to $500 million, would raise Atlantic salmon. The company expects to produce 33 million pounds of fish per year that would be sold to food markets in the Northeast U.S.

Zoning amendments approved by the council on Tuesday expand the allowed uses on the proposed 40-acre site to industrial standards similar to those at the nearby Mathews Bros. window factory.

The council vote allows Nordic Aquafarms to submit an application and plans to the city. But while Tuesday marked the end of the period when the city could turn away the salmon farm for any reason, the development still must be approved by the Planning Board, which will review the fish farm proposal against standards for stormwater management, noise, light, vegetative buffers and other criteria.

Councilors backed the changes for the promise of new tax revenue and the chance to embrace a new technology that might do better by the Earth, even if it meant doing worse by 40 acres of property inside the city limits. They asked residents to trust their elected representatives, because they have had more time to review the proposal from Nordic Aquafarms.

In an hour-long introduction, City Planner Wayne Marshall tried to head off concerns that have come up publicly since the fish farm was announced in January.

Belfast City Planner Wayne Marshall speaks before a public hearing Tuesday night describing the zoning changes needed for a large land-based salmon farm to be built in the city. Ethan Andrews photo

Setback requirements would narrow the 40 acres that Nordic Aquafarms proposes to buy to about 30 usable acres of which 70 percent could be covered by buildings and parking lots. Under terms of land deal between the city, the water district and the aquaculture company, Belfast would retain a 250-foot wide strip of land along the north bank of Little River, including a popular hiking trail there. That land adds about 20 acres that will remain undeveloped, Marshall said.

“So, if you look at the whole,” he said. “10 acres are already off the table … Then you add the 20 acres next to it and you get down somewhere close to 50 percent (of the land available to be developed).”

The city planner attempted to give context to concerns about noise, traffic and water usage by the fish farm.

Nordic Aquafarms anticipates noise at 35 decibels, which is lower than the city’s standard. Truck traffic would pale compared to the 60 trucks per day that traveled through downtown Belfast during the recent reconstruction of Front Street, he said. And car traffic from the 60 employees at the fish farm would about equal car traffic from several quiet residential streets on the other side of Route 1.

Marshall elicited some groans from the audience when he said attendance at Tuesday night’s meeting probably created as much vehicle traffic as Nordic Aquafarms would in a day.

Many residents have voiced concerns about the amount of freshwater the fish farm would require. Marshall said estimates from the Water District showed the city’s usage dramatically below the capacity of the aquifer demonstrated in years when food-processing industries were here.

Upward of 60 people attended Tuesday night’s meeting. Many had to watch from the hallway outside the council chambers or an adjacent conference room where televisions were tuned to the meeting. Of the 27 people who spoke, all but three voiced concerns about the fish farm.

Reasons ranged widely. Some worried that the city was returning to industrial food production as in the days of the poultry and sardine processing factories. Others objected to the clearing of a large area of undeveloped forest and its effect on animal habitats and a popular hiking trail. Speakers were hesitant to embrace the counterintuitive idea of raising fish on land. Some warned of the environmental impact of large-scale animal farming, There were doubts about land-based fish farming and fears about pollution from the aquaculture facility — one speaker invoked an image of massive amounts of sludge being spread across the county.

Though the discussion was civil, speakers were sometimes pointed in their characterization of the salmon farm, calling it a “fish tank industrialized food business,” a “factory farm enterprise,” a “predatory industry,” “an experiment,” and, quoting from Henry David Thoreau’s reflections on working more than one must, a “mess of pottage.”

Shared by nearly everyone who spoke against the zoning change was a feeling that the council, in one way or another, should wait — for more information from Nordic Aquafarms, for residents to get up to speed on a project that city officials were able to study for months behind closed doors, leading up to the public announcement in January.

“I just have a simple question,” Ernie Cooper of Belfast asked the council. “What’s the rush?”

The five city councilors also differed in their reasons for approving the zoning changes, but likewise shared a single feeling: that the city doesn’t have the option to wait.

Councilor Eric Sanders acknowledged that the council has had more time than the public to digest the Nordic Aquafarms proposal and said initially he had opposed the project. However, he said he had come to believe that the gain from raising fish in the U.S. instead of flying it in from South America, as is done today, outweighed the loss of some forest land in Belfast.

“It’s not just based on 30 or 40 acres; it’s based on the planet,” he said. “They may stumble, they may fumble, they may fail. But they may succeed and I’m willing to take that chance.”

Councilor Neal Harkness addressed those who urged the city to wait until Nordic Aquafarms could provide plans of the facility, saying the company is waiting to draft plans until it knows whether it can apply to build in Belfast and under what terms.

Several councilors said they support the fish farm proposal for the added tax revenue. Nordic Aquafarms expects to invest between $125 million and $500 million in the fish farm. How much of that will translate to taxable property or equipment isn’t known, and the state’s school funding formula, which gives less money to towns with greater overall valuation, is expected to eat into some of the gains, but councilors were optimistic that residents would see some tax benefit.

Councilor Mike Hurley snapped at residents for what he saw as a tone of distrust toward the council. The longtime councilor and former mayor invoked his long record of being elected to represent the city’s residents.

“If you didn’t trust me, you shouldn’t have voted for me,” he said. “Obviously this is a big deal for all of us.”

Two residents who spoke in favor of the salmon farm pointed to Norway’s higher ranking than the U.S. on environmental stewardship and many quality of life measures. But others questioned the idea that being from Norway is enough. Lane Fisher of Belfast said she would want to know if the sound ethics crossed oceans.

“I don’t know how the good Norwegians operate when they’re in another country with different rules,” she said.

Dirk Faegre of Belfast, one of two speakers to support the Nordic Aquafarms proposal, said the objections seemed to based on a knee-jerk reaction that industry is always “trying to pull a fast one” on the people. Faegre spent time in Norway and said businesses there, as everywhere, need to make money, but they don’t do it at the expense of people.

“I think we could learn a lot from them,” he said.

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