It may be summer, but that doesn’t mean that Belfast Planning Board members will have a lot of time on their hands for breezy beach reading.
That’s because they’ll be busy poring over the Nordic Aquafarms permit application for the proposed $500 million land-based salmon farm. At nearly 2,000 pages, 33 chapters and 42 sets of plans, nothing about the application — which fits in five big binders stored in a plastic box on wheels — would qualify as a light summer read.
The all-volunteer board commenced its official review of the application Wednesday night with a public informational meeting at the Hutchinson Center.
“It’s a little more complex than some of the applications the board looks at,” Wayne Marshall, the director of the city’s code and planning office, said wryly at the meeting’s outset.
The board will hold numerous meetings and hearings on the application, as members consider whether to grant Nordic Aquafarms a site plan permit, a shoreland zoning permit, a significant groundwater well permit, a use permit and zoning permits for water intake and water discharge pipe.
No decisions were to be made during this week’s meeting, during which Marshall gave a short rundown of the process and experts and officials from Nordic Aquafarms gave a rundown of what the application contains. There was no opportunity for comments or questions from the public, and the meeting was sparsely attended by opponents, making it a rare occurrence in the 18 months that the company has been working to develop its project.
Marshall said that the public record was open, but that the city has only received comments from two parties so far. The lengthy application can be downloaded from the city’s website, he said, with a couple of copies also available for public review at Belfast City Hall. He also said that the Planning Board has one job to do.
“They’re going to do their job as an administrative body for the city of Belfast to review the application,” he said. “If they deem it doesn’t meet the rules, they say no.”
The Planning Board has a different function than the Belfast City Council, he explained. Many councilors have been outspoken in their support of Nordic Aquafarms, but that won’t be the case for the board members.
“The City Council is a legislative body. They have the authority to make the law. These folks follow the law,” he said. “The City Council almost by obligation should take in as many views as they can” but the same is not true of the Planning Board. “The 11th Commandment is ‘Thou shall not talk to Planning Board members.’ They’re not in a position to talk about the application.”
Nordic officials and experts then spent about two hours giving an overview of the project, which they said would create approximately 100 jobs and significant tax revenue for the city. So far, the company has received its land-based aquaculture license from the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, and has submitted state and federal permits for review.
“We’re looking at every angle to make sure this is the best project it can be,” said Ed Cotter, project director for Nordic Aquafarms.
The application submitted to the Belfast Planning Board includes information about the visual impact of the project, its architecture and design, traffic, groundwater use and much more.
After the company’s presentation, some attendees shared their impressions. One person, Cynthia Anderson of Belfast, said she belongs to Local Citizens for Smart Growth: Salmon Farm, a grassroots group that opposes the project.
“The presentation is very slick, with an overwhelming amount of technical language,” she said. “They intend to do a very good job designing, building and operating a facility that is not in harmony with nature, with local production of food, with sustainability. It’s using immense amounts of water.”
But another Belfast resident, Diane Braybrook, is president of a different grassroots group, The Fish Are Okay, which supports what Nordic Aquafarms wants to build. She had a different take.
“I was very impressed with the level of expertise. The presentation was clearly done. It was understandable, even for someone like me, who doesn’t have this expertise,” she said. “I feel extremely confident that this is going to be world-class level and will be a wonderful addition to Belfast and Maine.”
The Planning Board’s next meeting will be a site visit to the proposed development, if the weather cooperates. Attendees should meet at the Belfast Water District office at 285 Northport Ave. at 5 p.m. on Wednesday, July 10. The public may attend, but will not be allowed to ask questions of board members or of Nordic Aquafarms, Marshall said.