This map shows the land that will change hands as part of a Norwegian aquaculture firm's push to build a $150 million land-based salmon farm in Belfast. The blue area depicts 40 acres Nordic Aquafarms will purchase from the Belfast Water District and another local landowner. The Orange area depicts another 40 acres the city will acquire from the water district. Credit: City of Belfast

BELFAST, Maine — A Norwegian aquaculture company planning one of the world’s largest indoor salmon farms in Belfast cleared its first hurdle Tuesday night, but not without controversy.

Following a heated, nearly four-hour meeting, Belfast city councilors unanimously approved a zoning ordinance change that will allow Nordic Aquafarms to advance to the next stages. The company is now clear to iron out plans for the site, pursue reviews and approvals from state and federal agencies, and apply for local development permits.

If all the groups vetting the project give the go-ahead, the earliest the first shovel could break ground would be sometime in 2019.

But for many of the roughly 100 people who attended Tuesday’s meeting, that’s too fast. Attendees filled the council chamber, the hallway outside, and an overflow meeting room where they watched the meeting on television.

Dozens told councilors to reject the zoning proposal as a means of slowing down the project. Some residents said they didn’t want to see the project happen at all, and would rather the land remain “pristine” wooded area.

Others said the project was just too big for Belfast. Other concerns ranged from possible discharge levels to whether freshwater aquifers under the site would be enough to sustain the project without harming the city’s water resources. Nordic has said its discharge levels would be less than the city’s wastewater treatment plant.

After a lengthy public hearing, councilors chimed in, arguing that these questions would all be vetted when Nordic applies for permits. When it became clear that the council would support the zoning change, some in the crowd grew upset, shaking their heads or jeering when a councilor said something with which they disagreed.

When Councilor John Arrison said that a months-long delay in the zoning vote could potentially force Nordic Aquafarms to abandon the project, some residents scoffed.

“We listened to you for three hours, it’s our turn,” Arrison said in response.

“You let us speak, but you didn’t hear a damn word we said,” someone in the audience shouted back.

Nordic can’t apply for permits until the proposed site is rezoned for industrial use. City Manager Joe Slocum said Nordic has already spent $500,000 just to get to this stage of the process.

Nordic’s permit applications would have to include answers to questions about the size of the buildings, water use, energy consumption, discharge levels, company finances, and more. It will be up to city, state and federal officials to determine — based on Nordic’s answers — whether the plan is viable and sustainable.

Nordic CEO Eric Heim has said he expects to be able to release more information about plans for the site in May. The company has been mapping the site to determine where buildings might be located and how the facility will be laid out.

A handful of locals spoke in favor of the project, arguing that they had full trust in a Norwegian company to put environmental concerns at the forefront of their development.

Steve Ryan, director of the Belfast Area Chamber of Commerce, said Nordic was being asked to meet “unreasonable criteria” by being asked to prove their project’s viability and “purity” before making it to the application stage. He said it was a burden that no other recent business or development in the city has had to overcome.

Councilors said they shared many of the critics’ questions and concerns, but that those would be answered during the permitting process, as well as through the vetting of the Department of Environmental Protection, Army Corps of Engineers, and other agencies that would need to review the proposal.

Nordic Aquafarms is planning an indoor farm that would produce 33,000 tons of Atlantic salmon per year. The company is buying about 40 acres off Route 1 near the Northport town line from the city’s water district and a private owner.

Not all of that land will be developed, according to City Planner Wayne Marshall. He expects about 25 acres to be built on, including buildings and parking lots. The city is purchasing 40 acres around the Little River and reservoir in that area to preserve a walking trail.

Companies have been flocking toward indoor aquaculture as technology costs have fallen in line with the costs of traditional salmon production, in which the fish are raised in open-water pens. Indoor farms allow more control over disease and pests, such as sea lice, proponents say.

Worldwide, the importance of fish and other seafood as a protein source is expected to boom as the human population continues to climb, according to the United Nations. Fish is the most efficient, sustainable animal protein to grow. Raising beef takes about 8 pounds of grain for every pound cattle weight gain. In pork, that ratio is about 4-to-1, and chicken 2-to-1. For every pound of feed put into raising salmon, you get nearly equal growth in production.

Demand in the U.S. is high, with Americans consuming about 500,000 tons of salmon each year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service. About 95 percent of that fish is imported, farmed fish that’s flown overnight to the U.S. These imports come almost entirely from Norway, Chile and Canada. Companies seeking to boost salmon farm production stateside say it will drive costs down in the U.S. by vastly reducing transportation costs.

Whole Oceans is planning a second Maine farm capable of producing 5,000 tons of Atlantic salmon in Bucksport at the former paper mill site. That proposal has faced less pushback given its location on an existing industrial site and its smaller scale. Work on that site could start as soon as August.

Atlantic Sapphire, a subsidiary of one of Nordic’s competitors, is building a farm near Miami, which expects to produce about 10,000 tons of salmon to start, with plans to expand to 90,000 tons of production by 2027, according to the Miami Herald.

Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.

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