There was a full house Wednesday night at the Hutchinson Center for the Belfast Planning Board's last public hearing on the entire Nordic Aquafarms project as a whole.

BELFAST, Maine — Emotions ran high as people who felt strongly about Nordic Aquafarms shared their hopes and fears with the Belfast Planning Board about the company’s plans to construct a $500 million land-based salmon fish farm near the Little River.

Around 100 people filled a conference room at the Hutchinson Center in Belfast during the final public hearing on the project Wednesday night before deliberations begin on five pending permit applications submitted by the company.

The project has been a lightning rod for opposition since it was announced two years ago, but more proponents have emerged lately. The planning board heard from both sides as they highlighted the polarization around the project.

Opponents fear the fish farm is too big, too new and untested, and too destructive to the environment, with specific concerns that include pollution, cutting of trees, water usage, and air and water quality degradation. They feared it would create a product that’s neither affordable nor desirable to locals and have an overall negative psychological effect on residents.

Proponents hope the project will increase the property tax base, add jobs, reduce pressures on the ocean, increase food security and make the community more resilient.

At times, it seemed as if some speakers were talking about two different projects — especially after two men addressed differences about the system company officials plan to use to produce so many fish.

“We are going to be a test site for this type of technology at this scale,” Andy Stevenson of Belfast said. “If this has never been done anywhere else. We don’t know what kind of unintended consequences might arise. The thing that bothers me the most about the overall plan is that it is risky technology.”

A short time later, Robert Richard, a retired marine engineer from Belfast, took his turn at the microphone.

“The design — as I see it — is rather basic. It involves a system that has, in fact, been tested … and the hazard we’ll be dealing with is primarily fish poop. This isn’t Fukushima. It’s growing fish. It’s not rocket science, either.”

Another proponent, Judy Berk of Northport, who has worked all her life in the environmental field, said growing salmon on land will help protect Maine’s wild salmon populations and reduce the pressure on oceans from harvesting wild fish. It seems like a good fit here, she said.

“America is importing 90 percent of the fish we eat,” she said. “Here we are in Belfast, with a chance to make an impact on that …. From what I’ve seen and heard, what the Nordic folks are proposing makes sense.”

Opponent Rhea Janise Kauffman, who said she and her husband had moved to the midcoast from Washington, D.C., just four and a half months ago, fears the fish farm would use too much water and be “far too large.”

According to previous BDN reports, the project is expected to comprise 10 buildings on 54 acres and produce 72.7 million pounds per year of salmon for consumers in the northeastern United States. Its two largest buildings would be nearly a quarter of a mile long. It would use thousands of gallons of fresh and seawater each minute, and wastewater from the recirculating aquaculture system would be filtered through a five-stage process before being discharged into Penobscot Bay.

“We wanted to get away to a more pleasant area to live,” Kauffman said. “I’m a knitter, and I meet with a lot of knitting people. There’s not one knitter that’s in favor of this farm.”

A total of about 265 people will work on the construction of the fish farm over five or six years, a Nordic official said this week, adding that about 100 will work at the facility when it’s at full build-out. According to previous BDN reports, Nordic would generate about $2 million in property taxes for the city during its first, $200 million phase of the build-out. The sum is more than Belfast’s top 50 taxpayers combined, and City Councilor Mike Hurley said last summer, it would allow the city to lower its tax rate and make long-needed infrastructure improvements.

But residents including Marina Delune of Belfast, a former city councilor who spoke Wednesday night, said she doubts revenue from Nordic will help lower the city’s taxes.

“We have almost more jobs here now than we can handle. There’s not adequate housing. There is such a thing as too much success,” she said. “Taxpayers aren’t going to get any benefit from it. In fact, our taxes just keep going up because of our success. Belfast is booming beyond its capacity to deal with it.”

That idea was bluntly contrasted by Christi Goosman, a teacher who lives in Belfast.

“Towns that do not innovate, die,” she said, when it was her turn to speak. “Waldo County is in desperate need of raising the standard of living for its poorest citizens. This could make a huge dent in that need.”

She went on to say that the city should not become a “retiree playground, or a bastion for the elite, the educated and those immune to poverty … The fact that Nordic has persisted in the face of sometimes insane and unfounded criticism astounds me. We cannot keep saying no to every opportunity that comes along. We have to give this one a try.”

Watch the meeting here:

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