Belfast residents file suit against city over salmon farm zoning process
BELFAST — Citing improper municipal process and failure to follow citizen participation procedures, two Belfast residents filed a complaint against the city, and cite the Belfast Water District and Nordic Aquafarms, Inc., a privately owned Norwegian-based business, as parties in interest. Nordic Aquafarms wants to site a land-based indoor salmon farm on 40 acres that currently belongs to the water district and private landowner Sam Cassida.
Ellie Daniels and Donna Broderick live on property abutting the 40-acre parcel in question, which is currently wooded and is adjacent to the Little River that flows into Penobscot Bay.
They said, in a prepared statement on Aug. 8, that the city, “abused its powers by approving April 17 zoning and comprehensive plan amendments without following state statute and local zoning ordinance process for planning board and community involvement.”
Through their attorney, Bruce McGlauflin, who is with the Portland-based firm Petruccelli, Martin & Haddow, the two filed an amended complaint Aug. 7 in Waldo County Superior Court. The City of Belfast has yet to reply to the complaint because it had been amended. Portland-based law firm Eaton Peabody represents the Water District; Drummond Woodsum represents Nordic Aquafarm, Inc.; and William Kelly, attorney with Kelly and Associates, in Belfast, represents the city.
Daniels and Broderick plan to be at the Troy Howard Middle School, in Belfast, at 5:30 p.m., one half hour preceding the 6 p.m. Aug. 15 Planning Board public hearing, to explain their position.
The hearing is being held by the Belfast Planning Board to consider the amendments that had been approved by the Council on April 17.
“The city has missed the essential thing,” said Daniels, in an Aug. 8 phone conversation. “They amended the zoning ordinance without having amended the comprehensive plan.”
While Daniels and Broderick are the plaintiffs, Daniels said that they are part of a larger group, Local Citizens for Smart Growth, concerned about the salmon farm proposal and the Belfast City Council decisions, particularly those made April 17, at a regularly scheduled Council meeting. That’s when the Council approved, in a second reading, amendments to city zoning ordinances and Belfast’s 2009 adopted Future Land Use Plan to establish that the area proposed for the Nordic Aquafarms project can be considered for a salmon aquaculture farm and accompanying uses.
The April 17 Council vote changed the zoning so that owners of the fish farm project could begin applying for municipal permits in the newly created Route 1 South Business Park District. Click here to watch a recording of that meeting.
Besides raising concerns about the proposed fish farm itself, Daniels and Broderick outlined multiple points in their suit (see attached PDF for the complaint) that dispute the legality by which the city introduced and processed amendment changes to allow for Nordic Aquaculture to proceed with that city permitting process.
The city is now proposing, in an administrative amendment that is also to be considered Aug. 15, to change the wording in city code that counters that procedure. It is as follows (proposed changes in red and proposed language to drop is in blue and struck-through:
Sec. 102-182. Review of proposed amendments by Planning Board. [Ord.No. 6-1998, 7-7-1998]
“The City Council, recognizing that it is the Planning Board that deals most closely with the zoning codes of the City, hereby resolves that any changes proposed to the City's zoning ordinances or codes be reviewed by the Planning Board before being considered for adoption by the City Council. The role of the Planning Board is to offer a recommendation to the City Council. This provision shall not apply to any amendments to the zoning ordinance initiated by the City Council. Any citizen whose request has been denied by the Planning Board may seek reconsideration of the proposed change by the council, with the Planning Board's input and recommendations being provided to the council.”
The salmon farm proposal
Early last May, following the January announcement that Nordic Aquafarms was interesting in constructing one of the world’s largest indoor fish farm in Belfast, the company announced it would begin the permit application process. That not only involves obtaining a land use permit from Belfast, but state permits, as well.
To date, no applications have been made to the city of Belfast for municipal permits, said the city’s land use director of code and planning, Wayne Marshall, on Aug. 13.
Likewise, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection has received no permit application from Nordic Aquafarms, as of Aug. 13.
Nordic Aquafarms, lead by CEO Erik Heilm, said the company intended to begin construction in 2019 on the project’s first phase. Initial descriptions of the plans have cited tanks 30 feet in height and the company itself has provided animation videos with site renderings and graphics $150-$500 million proposal. They are posted at the city’s website.
The website is also where the city is archiving its commissioned report from Deloitte concerning the recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS) technology that Nordic Aquaculture intends to employ with the raising and annual slaughter of 33,000-tons of fish at a land-based facility. The Deloitte report was produced by Delaitte AS and Oeloitte Advokatfirma AS, the Norwegian affiliates of Delaitte NWE LLP, a member firm or Delaitte ToucheTohmatsu limited.
The city commissioned the report to get information concerning land-based fish farming in general, and Nordic Aquafarms in particular.
“We see an attractive opportunity to bring our know-how, solutions and capital strength to the United States,” Nordic Aquafarms Heim had said in a May 9 news release. “We are committed to producing super fresh, high-quality seafood with a low environmental footprint for U.S. consumers. That requires local production, and we believe that we have found an ideal site here in Maine. We look forward to becoming a responsible and contributing member of the Maine Seafood industry.”
He added that there is enough fresh water in the Belfast aquifer to proceed with the project, and said: “We now have over 90 percent confidence related to site conditions and requirements and as a result will be moving ahead with engineering and permitting.”
Heim called Nordic Aquafarms’ venture a “green facility with soft integration into the landscape.”
Proponents, including the Belfast City Council, Maine’s Governor Paul LePage and U.S. Senators Susan Collins and Angus King, have said the Norwegian proposal will create jobs in the Midcoast, benefit the Belfast taxpayer, augment the local food production and be environmentally diligent with its operations and reliance on solar power.
Opponents and skeptics have asked the city to slow the process so that more information about the technology and project proposal can be reviewed. They question the scale of the project, the effect on the landscape and Penobscot Bay and its ecology. One person has raised concerns about cruelty to animals and the practice of mass production of animals for food, as well as food to feed those farm fish.
Heim had said Nordic Aquafarms is moving to Maine and is “developing disruptive sustainable fish farming practices for the future to deliver super fresh high-quality seafood to regional markets, with a low environmental impact,” and that, ”the company´s shareholders include some of the most prominent investors in the Norwegian industrial and shipping sectors.”
Phase 1 of the proposed Belfast venture calls for 2019 construction of a facility that houses the indoor production in large tanks and water treatment systems. They are “to recycle and treat water on site to reduce overall water consumption, recycling of waste resources, the prevention of sea lice and parasites, the elimination of fish escape into the sea and co-mingling with wild species, the application of renewable energy concepts, and a shorter distance to market for a high quality, fresh product, reducing the carbon footprint of air and land transport.”
The discharge pipe from the treated water from the facility is to extend one mile into Penobscot Bay.
Aug. 15 Planning Board hearing
On Aug. 15, the Belfast Planning Board is holding a public hearing on a series of amendments that include:
1) Establishing a new Route 1 South Business Park District that, if approved, will have Route 1 access, and will include approximately 28 acres currently owned by the Mathews Brothers business, as well as 50 acres belonging to the Belfast Water District, and 12 acres owned by privately landowner Sam Cassida. The latter are currently in the city’s Residential II District.
2) Amending the residential district ordinances to allow “significant water intake or water discharge/outfall pipes in the Route 1 South Business Park District;
3) Merging districts and eliminating the name Industrial IV District;
4) Allowing in the new district land-based aquaculture and accessory uses to aquaculture; and
5) Allowing significant groundwater wells and significant water intake and water discharge outfall pipes.
The Aug. 15 hearing, which begins at 6 p.m. in the Troy Howard Middle School cafeteria, and will also include consideration of amending the city’s shoreline zoning map to reclassify .5 acres of land currently in Resource Protection to become part of a general development district.
The hearing is to be recorded but not televised nor streamed live. Proceedings of the hearing will be posted on the Belfast city website.
According to Daniels, a group of citizens has been meeting every two weeks since April 17, when the City Council made its unanimous approval of measures that are to allow Nordic Aquafarms to proceed with its applications to build large tanks, approximately 30-feet in height, near the Little River.
She said citizens had not “woken up to what was happening” during the winter but by April, the city had received 147 letters concerning the amendment changes.
“The April meeting was the catalyst,” she said.
She and Broderick are funding $5,000 of their legal costs, and another $3,000 has been donated, but Daniels said the Local Citizens for Smart Growth are raising money, as well. A GoFundMe site has been set up, she said.
“We have $14,000 scraped together,” said Daniels.
The complaint, as filed by Daniels and Broderick, asks the court to “grant a declamatory judgment in their favor, setting aside the April 17 zoning amendments, setting aside the April 17 comprehensive plan amendments, declaring the amendments to have no force and effect, granting their plaintiffs their costs and attorney fees, and granting such other relief as may be just under the circumstances of the case.”
“The city council is now asking the Belfast Planning Board to rubber-stamp the Council’s abuse of authority by conducting an after-the-fact review and recommendation of the zoning amendments that the Council already approved on April 17,” wrote Broderick and Daniels, in their statement. “Ironically, the Council is also asking the Planning Board to amend the Belfast's zoning ordinance to eliminate the requirement that the Planning Board review zoning amendments proposed by the Council. Unfortunately, the city council is not asking the Planning Board to first engage in the community-wide planning process required by state law to amend the Belfast Comprehensive Plan before amending the zoning ordinance.
“Local Citizens for Smart Growth believes that everyone in Belfast, Waldo County and the state of Maine should be aware of this proposal to dramatically reduce the level of public participation in zoning and planning issues and decisions. “
Reach Editorial Director Lynda Clancy at firstname.lastname@example.org; 207-706-6657