Artist's rendering of the proposed Nordic Aquafarms land-based salmon facility in Belfast. Credit: Courtesy of Nordic Aquafarms

A Superior Court judge has ruled that the city of Belfast did not violate the law when officials amended the city’s land use plan in April 2018 to allow the Nordic Aquafarms project to move forward.

The decision, which was handed down on Friday, may mark the end of a year-long lawsuit filed against the city by Ellie Daniels and Donna Broderick, whose Perkins Road property abuts the parcel of land where the proposed land-based salmon farm would be constructed.

In the lawsuit, Daniels and Broderick alleged that the City Council did not follow proper procedures when councilors amended zoning changes on April 17, 2018. The couple also said that the changes made were inconsistent with the city’s comprehensive plan and that councilors changed the plan after the fact without following its own process.

After controversy over the decision escalated, including the filing of the lawsuit, the councilors asked the Planning Board to review the changes they had made. The board held a public hearing in August on the April zoning changes and then spent weeks reviewing and revising the amendments, adding additional standards for a permit requirement for any significant groundwater well. The council adopted the revised amendments in October 2018.

Justice Robert Murray found that the city acted correctly when it undertook these actions and granted the city’s motion for summary judgement in the suit. In his order, he wrote that the City Council properly amended the future land use section of its comprehensive plan on April 17, 2018.

Additionally, he found that the plaintiffs’ challenge to the April zoning ordinance amendments was made moot “when the City Council properly adopted the zoning ordinances on October 16, 2018, after Planning Board review and revision.” He also said that the city ultimately gave the public adequate opportunity to be heard regarding the zoning changes, as is required by state law, and that the City Council was right in October 2018 when it found that the zoning ordinances were consistent with the April amendments to the city’s future land use plan.

“We are of course happy to see that the Court ruled completely in our favor and against all of the Plaintiffs’ allegations,” Belfast City Manager Joe Slocum wrote in an email sent to the BDN on Friday, adding that the city has spent an estimated $70,000-plus on the lawsuit. “It was always our intent to provide a fair and thorough process. We are pleased in particular that the Court determined that we appropriately provided for the required citizen participation, public notice and public hearings.”

Daniels does not agree that the process has necessarily been “fair and thorough.” She said Saturday morning that she learned about the ruling on Friday night, when a reporter called her. Previously, she had understood that there would most likely be an evidentiary hearing on the matter, which might be scheduled for the fall or early winter.

“I think the most unusual thing is to have a lawsuit that unfolds over a year to not have an evidentiary hearing,” she said. “It’s just kind of assumed that it will happen.”

Her attorney, who hadn’t seen the decision when they spoke, told her that it was highly unusual to have a judgement without a hearing. Daniels said she didn’t yet know if she and Broderick would appeal the decision.

“It’s been a long ordeal,” she said. “I think the least a citizen should expect is to have their day in court.”

Marianne Naess, the commercial director for Nordic Aquafarms, counts the decision as “another milestone” for the company, which she said has growing support in Maine. It still faces staunch opposition among some in the area.

“We remain confident that the project will move forward and that we have a solid legal position,” she said.