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The company that wants to build one of the world’s largest indoor salmon farms in Belfast has taken steps to preserve an undeveloped 80-acre tract that contains nearly 3 miles of the popular Little River Trail.
According to a preliminary plan hashed out between Nordic Aquafarms Inc. and the Belfast Water District, the quasi-municipal utility that owns the land, the parcel around the Little River’s upper reservoir would be acquired by the city of Belfast. There would be deed restrictions put in place to guarantee the permanent conservation of the property, the company said in a statement.
But first, the Norwegian-based salmon company plans to donate funds to Belfast so the city can purchase the parcel from the Belfast Water District at a reduced cost. The offer includes additional money to ensure habitat restoration.
The company’s donation of all funds for the project is contingent upon it receiving approvals for construction and operation of the salmon farm.
The Belfast City Council was scheduled to hear a presentation about the plan at Tuesday night’s meeting.
“We are committed to being a good neighbor and responsible member of the community,” said Erik Heim, president of Nordic Aquafarms Inc.
The Little River Trail stretches 4 miles from the water district’s parking lot on the Little River to the Walsh Ball Fields on Route 52. It is used by hikers, snowshoers, dog walkers and others who stride underneath tall pine trees and alongside the two reservoirs, which were created in the 1880s when the Little River became the water source for Belfast. Although the reservoirs are no longer used to quench the thirst of Belfast residents — two drilled wells on the east side of the city do that — the trail system remains popular.
Its fate was an early concern when Nordic Aquafarms announced nearly a year ago its intention to buy land from the Belfast Water District to construct the salmon farm. Although company officials long have said they would ensure public access to the trail, that has not always reassured those who oppose the project.
The news that there is a plan in place to preserve the land seemed good to Cloe Chunn, a member and past president of the Belfast Bay Watershed Coalition, the group that maintains the Little River Community Trail.
“I was glad to hear it,” she said. “That does seem like a positive thing. There are so many unknowns right now. The Belfast Bay Watershed Coalition is watching and waiting to make sure that the promises being made are kept.”
Chunn said that the coalition, which has a mission of education, community building and research, has not taken a stand on the proposed land-based salmon farm.
“We don’t advocate for or against issues, unless it’s a clear case of a threat, like water quality contamination,” she said. “We can’t tell if there is a threat there yet.”
But she was happy to talk about the value of the Little River Trail.
“The whole Little River Trail is an urban forest in the city limits of Belfast,” she said. “It’s amazing to have that much forest in a town or city. You really feel like you’re remote.”
According to the Nordic Aquafarms statement, Belfast officials are consulting with the Coastal Mountains Land Trust to explore options and plans for longer-term ownership, management and maintenance of the land around the upper reservoir.
Heim said that one of the first considerations will be an engineering study to ensure the safety of the upper dam. A preliminary evaluation has indicated that lowering the level of the dam is likely to be the best way to ensure its structural integrity, he said.
“There are still many details to work through, but everyone involved is committed to preserving this land in perpetuity for all to enjoy,” he said.