People attending a planning board hearing held Wednesday night about zoning ordinance changes made last April stand next to a large sign made by opponents of a controversial land-based salmon farm.

In April, Belfast city councilors unanimously approved zoning ordinance changes that would allow a company planning one of the world’s largest indoor salmon farms to advance to the next stages of the project.

In the months since, tensions have risen among midcoast Mainers over Nordic Aquafarms’ plans for the project, and earlier this summer, two Belfast residents filed a lawsuit alleging that the city did not follow its own process when it gave the greenlight to the zoning changes.

More than 150 people squeezed into the Troy Howard Middle School cafeteria Wednesday night to share their thoughts before the Belfast Planning Board during a public hearing on the issue. The city council asked the board to review the changes after controversy over the decision escalated. The board could vote to reject the changes and restart the process.

Opponents of the fish farm feel city officials acted hastily and without transparency in approving the zoning change, and fear what the project might mean to the local environment. Ellie Daniels, who filed suit against the city along with Donna Broderick, told the planning board that the “democratic process” had broken down.

Credit: Courtesy of City of Belfast

“There is distrust, disrespect, untruths and a fracture of communication,” she said. “Slow down. This is too big and too fast.”

She told board members they will be doing a disservice to the community if they approve the changes made in April.

“I urge you instead to recommend a restart,” she said.

But changing the zoning to allow land-based aquaculture at the site didn’t mean that the project was fast-tracked, City Planner Wayne Marshall said. No plan and no permit applications have been filed to date with the city.

If applications are filed, they would have to include answers to questions about the size of the buildings, water use, energy consumption, discharge levels and more. The plan would be reviewed by the Belfast Planning Board, the Department of Environmental Protection, the Army Corps of Engineers and other agencies before deciding whether to allow the project.

“One of the goals was to create an opportunity for a potential major development,” Marshall said.

But that goal didn’t sit well with most — though not all — of the people at the hearing. Some were so emotional they seemed to be holding back tears as they read from prepared remarks and struggled to stay within their allotted five-minute time frame for comments. They voiced concerns about water, effluent, climate change, a dislike of farmed fish and a fear that the city risks giving too much power away to a large, multinational corporation.

Nordic has said that concerns are overblown, and that any discharge will go through thorough filtration and treatment before it’s released to cut down on contaminants.

The hearing did have some moments of tension. One man initially refused to stop talking after his five minutes and called out for support from the people in the room to let him finish.

“The ocean is already collapsing. Nordic is for the destruction of the ocean because they’re a fish farm,” Ethan Hughes, a recent transplant from Missouri, said to the crowd before insisting he be allowed to continue talking. “I am going to finish because I have the majority of this democracy with me … I’m going to stand here because it’s the will of the people.”

Hughes eventually did stand down, as a woman called out from the sidelines that he was new to the area, and that he should respect the process.

A couple of speakers seemed to indicate their willingness to move forward and find out more hard facts about the project.

“I would like to express my support to the planning board and to the city council,” Belfast resident Kiril Lozanov said. “The zoning changes that have been proposed give us the opportunity to see more information in the next steps. Without knowing the next steps, we have already judged this entire project.”

Planning board members did not make any decisions after the public hearing and will meet again to talk about the zoning changes the evening of Wednesday, Aug. 22, although the place for the meeting has not yet been determined.

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