Two of Belfast’s most outspoken opponents of the world’s largest proposed indoor salmon farm this week have thrown their hats into the political ring, seeking to win city council seats in November as write-in candidates.
Ellie Daniels, who filed a lawsuit this summer against the city in opposition to the salmon farm, and Jim Merkel have joined Joanne Moesswilde, a fish farm opponent who already was on the ballot. If some or all the three win, it would potentially have big consequences for the future of the multimillion-dollar farm, which is the largest proposed business development in the city’s history.
“The control of the council is up for grabs,” incumbent Councilor Neal Harkness, who is running against Moesswilde for the Ward 2 seat, said this week.
Belfast is divided into five wards, each represented by a councilor who lives in that ward. All residents vote for councilors from all of the wards.
According to Daniels, who has owned the Green Store in downtown Belfast for 25 years and has worked for many years as a midwife, the three are not running as a bloc or slate, but as individuals. Still, they are individuals who share some strongly held views.
They all decry the idea of a large international corporation, in this case the Norwegian-owned Nordic Aquafarms, using Maine resources such as fresh and ocean water for the salmon farm. And they all said they were spurred to action by the way city officials have seemed to welcome Nordic’s proposal. They believe city officials have quietly put out the red carpet for the company behind closed doors, without listening to or taking into consideration what project opponents are saying.
“The fish farm is only part of why we’re running,” said Daniels, who lives very close to the proposed salmon farm. “It’s a specific part of larger issues that we stand for: protection of our resources from exploitation and protection of our green belt … the reason I’m running is very much in line with what my major passions have been. Transparency. Local voice. And legal process at the local level.”
She will be running against City Councilor Mary Mortier, a Realtor who has represented Belfast’s Ward 1 for six years. Mortier said that the city has lots of issues right now — more than just the proposed salmon farm. She’s concerned about the lack of sufficient affordable housing, the effects of climate change, the city’s high property taxes and more.
In 2018, property owners paid $22.70 per $1,000 in valuation, meaning that a person whose house is valued at $100,000 would owe $2,270 in taxes. The councilor, who describes herself as a “budget hawk,” said the multimillion-dollar salmon farm had early council support and interest because of the potential tax revenues it would generate. But tax relief isn’t her only consideration.
“There’s no question that that is a very important part of this,” Mortier said. “But if all the environmental studies aren’t up to snuff, then the tax revenues don’t mean anything.”
That is not the impression that Moesswilde, a nurse practitioner who works at Waldo County General Hospital in Belfast and who has served on the city’s harbor committee, gets from the current council.
“I’m not just running because of the fish farm. It’s because of the process I saw around the fish farm,” Moesswilde said. “It’s important to have some broad perspective and possibly some new perspective on the council, to make sure that people get what they need — including people living in poverty. I don’t think that large international corporations are the way to fix that problem. I think they bring their own set of problems.”
As a possible answer to the affordable housing crisis, she said she would like to see a tiny home community emerge in Belfast. And for relief to high property taxes, Moesswilde suggested something akin to a graduated property tax structure, so that people with lower incomes pay less than people who retire to Belfast from other places where they have earned more money over their lifetimes.
“We’ve got to think outside the box, but I don’t think the fish farm is the answer,” she said.
Harkness, who has served on the council for four years, said he supports considering the salmon farm because it has the potential to significantly lower taxes and bring good jobs. The city tax assessor has estimated that the aquafarm could add from $800,000 to $2 million or more per year to the city’s tax coffers. Those funds could provide tax relief for some of the lower-income people he meets every day in his job as a driver for the Mid-Coast Connector, the agency that provides nonemergency transportation to people receiving MaineCare.
“If [people] oppose that proposal, it is on them to propose one of their own,” he said. “I’m sure they’re absolutely sincere in wanting things, but just wanting them doesn’t make them happen. You have to do things to make them happen.”
Merkel, an engineer, educator, filmmaker and community activist, is currently the chairman of the city’s Pedestrian, Biking and Hiking Committee. He also said he does not consider himself to be a one-issue candidate and does have ideas to make things happen.
If elected, he would like to renew and update Belfast’s comprehensive plan and start a conversation about the best use for the property by the Little River for which Nordic has a purchase-and-sale agreement. The land belongs to the Belfast Water District, a quasi-municipal public utility.
“It could be a park, a playground, a wildlife corridor,” he said, adding that in terms of economic development, he has a different vision for the city. “I would like to see a broad process to stimulate local, sustainable economic initiatives.”
Some ideas include improving the working waterfront and the local food economy as well as bringing high-speed broadband internet to the city. Additionally, he would like the council to work on issues of education, health care and start taking out dams or building fish ladders on local rivers.
“I’m running so you can catch a fish,” he said. “We could have a million alewives … you could have 20 small businesses, smoking and processing alewives.”
His opponent is Paul Dean, the only candidate in the race who was born and brought up in the midcoast city. Dean worked for more than 40 years at the paper mill in Bucksport and spent 11 years on Belfast’s comprehensive plan committee.
“I enjoyed sitting in the meetings and listening, watching government in process,” he said, adding that he also wants to be a councilor because of what he sees happening around him. “I think of the 20 people that were almost foreclosed on this last year, with taxes too high. … I’d like to see our spending stay level.”
Dean said that if he had been on the council this past year, he believes he would have been in favor of the salmon farm, although he does have reservations about the large expected water usage.
“I look forward to having the chance to speak up and make something work for the people of Belfast,” he said. “I really love Belfast and I like the people. I’d like to have the chance to represent them.”
Other candidates agreed with those sentiments, even if some differ sharply on the salmon farm and what it would mean to the city.
“What is it we want Belfast to look like 10 years from now? Twenty years from now? Is the answer to build a bigger airport or to look at what we have going on now. It’s a beautiful place to live,” Daniels said. “If the fish farm comes to this town, I can’t live in this town anymore, and that’s why I’m running. I love this town.”
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