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 in July 2019. Credit: Abigail Curtis / BDN

BELFAST, Maine — The Belfast Planning Board unanimously voted Tuesday night to award Nordic Aquafarms some of the final permits it needs to build a $500-million land-based salmon farm at the southern edge of the city.

The decision by the all-volunteer board follows 18 months of deliberation, 38 meetings and the review of some 70,000 pages of materials, and marks one of the final steps in the Norwegian company’s sometimes-controversial quest to launch operations in North America.

“It’s been a long and comprehensive and thorough process,” Marianne Naess, executive vice president of commercial for the Norwegian-owned company, said Wednesday. “We feel we have been vetted from here to the moon and back again, which is good. That can give residents of Belfast and the surrounding areas confidence in the project.”

Before Nordic Aquafarms can break ground, it still must obtain a federal permit from the Army Corps of Engineers and resolve a land-use court case pending in Waldo County Superior Court around the ownership of the intertidal zone near the Little River where Nordic wants to lay pipes for its project.

One set of property owners near the mudflat has negotiated a lease with Nordic to bury infrastructure there. But other neighbors, who staunchly oppose Nordic’s plans to build on the site, claim they are the rightful owners of the mudflat.

Justice Robert Murray held a pre-trial conference on the case Wednesday morning, but no date has been set for the trial, a court clerk said.

The planning board began considering Nordic’s permit applications in June 2019 to determine if the project met local standards for its site plan, shoreland, groundwater, zoning, and intake and discharge permits.

“Regardless of whether people agree or disagree with the decisions of the board, the planning board stepped up above and beyond to look at an extraordinary amount of information,” Wayne Marshall, a project planner for the City of Belfast, said.

The board prioritized protecting Belfast residents from potential adverse outcomes of the project, he said.

It’s making Nordic culpable, for example, if the company ever compromises the groundwater in private wells. Nordic has been required to pay $250,000 in advance into a fund that would insure neighboring landowners are taken care of in the event their water sources are degraded.

There are many other conditions to the permits, too, Marshall said, adding that he expects opponents to petition the city’s zoning board of appeals to overturn the decision. Only those who have been granted standing by the city can file an appeal on the planning board’s decision, and must do so within 30 days.

Andy Stevenson, a member of the nonprofit Friends of Harriet L. Hartley Conservation Area, said the group is exploring that option.

“It’s a question of resources and energy,” said Stevenson, who was disappointed that the board deliberated before the outstanding court case was resolved.

He felt board members aimed to do their job conscientiously, though they were confined by the “narrow jurisdiction” set by the city’s legal team.

“It was made clear to the board members early on … that each of them individually had to rely only on what was presented to them in the hearing process,” he said.

But Anne Saggese of The Fish Are Okay, a local group that supports Nordic Aquafarms, said she’s pleased with the process and thrilled about the permits being granted.

“The planning board really went above and beyond and dissected every possible piece of that application,” she said. “I think they explored every possible ‘what if’ out there and came to the conclusion that, as big as Nordic is, it falls well within our parameters of what we expect for a business.”