BELFAST, Maine — Belfast Planning Board will hold its final public hearing on Wednesday as it prepares to deliberate on five pending permit applications for Nordic Aquafarms’ proposed land-based salmon farm here.
Over the last few months, board members held public hearings on specific elements of the application. Last week, they asked for something different — to hear people’s thoughts on the project as a whole. So many folks had so much to say during the 2.5-hour public hearing — mostly in opposition to the fish farm — that there wasn’t enough time to finish and it will be continued this week, according to Wayne Marshall, the director of the city’s code and planning department.
Having so many hearings on one project was an unusual strategy for the board, but in this case it made sense, he said.
“This is a big project. From Day 1 — the one thing that was known about this project is that it was big,” he said.
That’s not an understatement. Nordic Aquafarms wants to build a $500-million salmon farm off Route 1, near the mouth of the Little River and the Northport town line. Before it can move forward with construction, it needs to secure federal, state and local permits, and is still waiting for decisions from the Army Corps of Engineers and the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. Belfast city ordinances require the company to obtain five permits:
— a site plan permit;
— a shoreland permit, which only applies to the portion of the property in the city’s shoreland zone;
— a significant groundwater well permit, with three groundwater wells proposed that would collectively use about 455 gallons of water per minute, 24 hours a day;
— a significant water intake/(waste)water discharge pipe permit, and
— a zoning use permit.
Since it began looking at Nordic’s proposal in June 2019 the volunteer board has conducted 12 meetings about the project and received roughly 5,500 pages of applications for the project, Marshall said.
Last week, Upstream Watch, a group that opposes the project, was granted 45 minutes to make a presentation on such concerns as the fish farm’s carbon footprint and its potential effect on air emissions and the natural environment. Others shared their thoughts on the project, too, Marshall said, and all but one commenter opposed the fish farm.
This week, Nordic Aquafarms’ officials are expected to share some comments with the board, as will project advocacy group The Fish are Okay. Parties of interest will be allowed to offer rebuttals, and members of the public who did not speak last week will have a chance to comment. So far, the board has received roughly equal numbers of written comments from people who support and oppose the project.
After this week’s meeting, the planning board will switch its focus, Marshall said.
“The board has been in an information-gathering stage,” he said. “What the board hasn’t done to date … is a lot of deliberation on the project.”
For each of the five permits, the board will be asked to identify what additional information may be needed and decide if it believes Nordic Aquafarms has met the city’s code requirements. If it determines the application does not meet those requirements, it will outline items for Nordic to address. If issues cannot be addressed, the board may decide to deny one or more of the permit applications, Marshall said, declining to provide a tentative timeline of when the final decisions may be made.
“We’ll get a better sense of where things are at when the board starts looking at the application as a whole,” he said, adding that in his 21-plus years working for the city, this project has been one of the most complex. “There’s no other application that has involved this many public hearings.”
He did say there will be future opportunities for members of the public to share their thoughts about Nordic in February, when the Maine Board of Environmental Protection will hold several hearings on the project.
The Belfast Planning Board special meeting will be 6 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 15, in Room 138 at the University of Maine Hutchinson Center in Belfast.