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On the day a then-26-year-old night-shift nurse was set to be sworn in as the youngest mayor in Belfast’s history, one of the biggest proposed investments in the city’s history fell into her lap.
Representatives of a Norwegian aquaculture firm, Nordic Aquafarms, had spent months searching the East Coast for an ideal spot for one of the world’s largest indoor fish farms, and had zeroed in on a piece of land owned by Belfast’s water district. Now, they were meeting with city officials, including the new mayor.
Less than a week earlier, Samantha Paradis had taken the seat from Walter Ash, a 72-year-old retired mechanic with decades of political experience at local and state levels. This would be the Frenchville native’s first foray into politics.
The aquaculture firm said it planned to invest $150 million in the new facility, and that future stages of construction could swell that investment to a staggering $500 million — by far the biggest commercial project this part of Maine had seen in recent memory.
Two months later, the proposal went public. When the dust settled, divisions began to sprout in the community. Groups of local activists organized against the project, voicing fears that the development would destroy the city’s identity, flatten “pristine woodland” near Little River and pollute the bay with effluent from the farm.
Some said they didn’t trust a foreign corporation coming in to launch a project of this size; others didn’t trust local politicians and city employees to properly vet the proposal.
Supporters of the effort say the company’s investment will provide a huge boost to the community, put Maine at the center of a budding U.S. land-based aquaculture industry, and provide sorely needed tax relief to other local businesses and homeowners. They say the environmental impact concerns will be carefully weighed by federal and state agencies that need to review and decide whether to permit the operation.
The spats between the factions spilled over into heated, marathon public meetings and stirred up on Facebook. Amid the fray, Paradis, now 27, is trying to rein in one of the most heated debates over the city’s future in recent memory.
“What concerns me is we’re getting further and further away from being together, and it’s becoming an us-and-them situation,” Paradis said during a recent interview. “People have very strong and passionate opinions, and I think that’s evidence of how much people really love Belfast and love our community.”
The tensions have spread to the City Council as well.
“I think in a lot of ways, I represented a change that may not have been welcomed,” Paradis said during a recent interview.
In Belfast, the mayor is an elected official who doesn’t typically vote with city councilors except as a tiebreaker, but does serve as a sort of figurehead representative of the city, and is responsible for moderating meetings and facilitating discussions.
Amid the controversy, the already lengthy semiweekly Belfast council meetings stretched, sometimes past four or five hours. Paradis instituted five-minute breaks at the end of each hour of the meetings, and proposed ending meetings after 10 p.m.
“I’m concerned with the meetings running so late because at some point the public can’t be there to be a part of this public process because it just gets so late,” Paradis said. “And are we really making our best decisions after five hours of a meeting after many of us have worked all day?”
The breaks bother some councilors, who argue that they interrupt the flow and only served to make meetings drag on longer. Others felt a 10 p.m. cutoff time for meetings would serve to stifle conversation and leave too little time to do necessary business.
Frustrations reached a boiling point early this month during a council discussion about Paradis’ push for a special facilitated meeting focused on how the city’s elected officials interact with one another other and the public. Paradis said confrontational exchanges between councilors and the public prompted her request.
The council agreed to schedule a meeting in August, though several were reluctant. Mary Mortier said she believes the council was being treated like a group of kindergartners. Mike Hurley said he felt Paradis was showing “an excessive authoritarian instinct” in her refusal to consider the consensus feelings of the council.
Paradis, who is about half the age of the next-youngest councilor, said she feels her age is playing a role in the tensions with the rest of the council.
“I think it’s playing a factor, but I think it’s a factor in most professional environments in Maine,” Paradis said.
The other five councilors also have been serving together through multiple terms. The newest member before Paradis, John Arrison, joined in 2014.
“I only want to say that, since 2014, this council has worked wonderfully well together, bringing our disparate gifts to the table, and usually coming to unanimous decisions,” he said when asked about the recent conflicts. “The five of us continue well in our efforts to communicate with each other, with the community and with city staff. We respect the city’s charter. In these respects, nothing has changed.”
What’s going well?
Paradis said she’s confident the waters will calm, and the community and City Council will sort through their issues. She said it’s important not to lose sight of positive changes happening in the city.
Since her election, she has been touring Belfast businesses, including potato processor Penobscot McCrum, salmon processor Ducktrap River of Maine, window manufacturer Mathews Brothers and Front Street Shipyard. Several of these businesses are expanding, and they signal a healthy, diverse economy in the city to complement growing tourism traffic.
Belfast also is making strides toward countering climate change, she argued. The city, which became the first municipality in the state to install a solar array on top of a former landfill in 2015, plans to build another large-scale array at its new public works facility. When it’s on line, 85 percent to 90 percent of the electricity powering municipal buildings will come from renewable energy sources. Right now, that number is about 20 percent.
The $1.5 million solar array is expected to start generating revenue after three years and save $3 million over its projected 30-year lifespan, according to Revision Energy.
The city is also boosting its focus on climate change, forming a climate change committee earlier this year that’s expected to issue a risk report in the fall that will explore the potential impacts of sea level rise on Belfast’s shores and harbor. The city’s also continuing its push to find ways to encourage development and ease a severe housing crunch that’s making it difficult for people to move here.
This week, Paradis is in Seattle attending a conference organized by the Young Elected Officials Network.
“I’m looking forward to networking with young elected officials from around the country,” Paradis said. “I hope to tackle complex problems and create equitable solutions that I can bring back to Belfast.”
Asked what she could be doing better, “I think I could smile more at meetings,” she said. “I need to show happiness, because I really am happy to be in this role.”
She said she’d work to fulfill her campaign promise of “bringing everyone’s voice to the table” whether it relates to housing concerns, the climate or the salmon farm.
“I think it’s important for everyone involved in this conversation to recognize that we’re still neighbors, and that this is a small community that we all love and respect,” Paradis said.
Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.
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