Belfast Planning Board members Geoff Gilchrest, left, and Declan O'Connor walk across a field at the northern edge of the Nordic Aquafarms project site in Belfast.

Belfast Planning Board members this week began reviewing the proposal from Nordic Aquafarms after they determined that, despite a legal challenge to the land-based salmon farm, they can move forward with processing its application.

The board also decided who would be granted status as a “party in interest” and heard criticism from an attorney representing project opponents. The three-hour regular meeting Monday was the first of many opportunities for the planning board and the public to deliberate the nearly 2,000-page application for the large land-based salmon farm, by any measure one of the most complicated and controversial projects in recent Belfast history.

But first they had to vote on whether Nordic Aquafarms had provided evidence of sufficient right, title and interest to access the intertidal land where it plans to place intake and outfall pipes to get to and from Penobscot Bay. The Norwegian-owned company is facing a civil lawsuit over whether it has the legal right to the intertidal land in question, but City Attorney Bill Kelly told the board that they do not have to be experts in complex legal matters. They just have to determine whether the company has provided sufficient evidence of right, title and interest to take the next step.

“What you have before you is clearly a conflict of opinions from lawyers, surveyors, property owners and heirs as to what the rights are and are not in the one area of contention, which is the intertidal zone,” Kelly told the board, adding that he believes there is enough evidence to move forward with the application. “If something comes out of court to stop this process, then that will happen. But it’s not your purview to get into that.”

The Planning Board largely agreed, with only member Daisy Beal voting against a motion to move forward with the application.

The lawsuit against the company hinges on a 1946 deed and was filed earlier this summer by Northport Avenue residents Jeffrey Mabee and Judith Grace. Kelly told the Planning Board that it could take as much as two years for the court to make a decision, with the appeals process taking up to a year or two after that.

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Board members also granted status as “party in interest” to Mabee and Grace; Upstream Watch, a nonprofit group that is concerned with the health of Penobscot Bay; the Maine Lobstering Union; lobstermen David Black and Wayne Canning; landowner Constance Brown of Northport; and Ellie Daniels and Donna Broderick, whose Belfast property abuts the project.

This status is given to individuals or groups that are more likely to be harmed by the project and means that they may have the ability to appeal the Planning Board’s decisions in the future, according to Wayne Marshall, director of the city’s Code and Planning Department.

At the meeting, the board heard from some project opponents, including Paul Bernacki of Belmont, who interrupted the discussion of right, title and interest by “marching to the front of the room, waving papers and demanding that Nordic President Erik Heim” name people who had signed redacted release deeds, according to the Republican Journal newspaper. Bernacki was asked to step down.

They also heard criticism from attorney Kim Ervin Tucker, who is representing some of the opponents. She told the board she was not satisfied with its decision to accept only written comments on right, title and interest, and not hold a public hearing on the matter. The board received about 400 pages in total from both sides.

“We’ve been denied another opportunity [to be heard,]” she said.

She also told board members she believes the city attorney has a financial conflict of interest and should not serve as an adviser to the Planning Board.

“There is a due process violation by having someone with a pecuniary interest in the outcome being an adjudicator or advising you,” Ervin Tucker said.

City Manager Joe Slocum and Marshall fired back at Tucker’s suggestion the following day. They said the basis for the supposed conflict of interest with the attorney and other city employees stem from a $102,150 fee that Nordic Aquafarms has paid to Belfast.

“It was put in my face last night that I work for Nordic Aquafarms,” Slocum said. “If we have complicated issues … we make the applicant, no matter who they are, pay the costs of what we have to go through to get the information we need to make the decisions we make.”

Marshall agreed.

“It’s the largest fee we’ve ever assessed on anyone, and nearly all those moneys are going to pay the costs for professional services,” he said. “It’s standard practice.”

Watch: Why so many fish farms are slated to open in Maine

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