Next week’s election could spell the fate of a high-tech, indoor salmon-growing operation proposed for midcoast Belfast, a development proposal that has torn a rift in the tight-knit community. The city council has been a strong backer of Nordic Aquafarms’ proposal, over repeated objections from opponents who are vocal — and organized.
Now, a majority of the council’s voting seats are up for grabs, and some see Tuesday’s vote as a referendum on the project.
Norway-based Nordic Aquafarms says it’s ready to invest up to half a billion dollars in the plant, which would occupy some 40 acres near a small river that feeds into Belfast Bay. Project officials say it would be the second-largest indoor salmon growing operation in the world, and they promise dozens of jobs, a major boost to the local tax base and a leadership role for Belfast in a new age of onshore fish-farming.
Some longtime residents, such as Peggy Differ, are all for it.
“I think it’ll really bring some business to Belfast and improve Belfast’s economy. That’s my true belief in that,” she says.
The city council, mindful of the high property tax rate, was quick to embrace the idea. But it has stirred controversy in this roughly 6,000-person community. It’s a real mix here of retirees, back-to-the-landers, artists, young professionals and a growing workforce for the city’s dynamic waterfront.
“It was, quite frankly, shocking to see not one councilor nor our mayor stand with the citizens of Belfast,” says project opponent Joanne Moesswilde, a registered nurse.
Opponents have turned out in force for council meetings. They’ve ticked off many fears: the loss of prized woodland near the river, noise, smells, fish disease, wastewater discharge to the bay and excessive water withdrawal from local aquifers.
At a summer hearing, Moesswilde echoed many who say councilors were secretive about dealings with project officials, short-circuited city rules and turned their backs on opponents.
“It’s still not clear what the rush has been to push this project through amid such immense community opposition. It is the duty of the council to act on behalf of us, those who have elected you,” she said.
“I’m getting to the point where I’ve got to make this statement — you speak for yourselves,” said two-term city councilor Neal Harkness, pushing back. “You do not speak for ‘the community’. You do not speak for the majority of citizens of this city. I have heard far more contact from people who support the Nordic Aquafarms development than people who oppose it.”
The debate’s pugnacity was growing more and more troubling to the city’s 27-year-old mayor, Samantha Paradis, a public-health nurse and first-time politician. In a recent interview, Paradis said she was determined to do something about it.
“I’ve survived sexual and domestic violence. And as a young woman seeing verbal aggression among council and public, that was really uncomfortable for me,” she said.
Paradis roped resistant fellow-councilors into a facilitated discussion that resulted in a new policy for civility at public hearings. Around the same time, councilors agreed to tweak some proposed zoning changes to include more local oversight of water extraction and discharge. And Belfast’s local politics have calmed a bit, at least in tone.
Linda Buckmaster, a writer and project opponent, says both sides are cooling down the rhetoric.
“Some of the more flamethrower types, reactive types kind of lost interest, others we took aside and said, ‘That’s not cool, don’t do it, you’re not helping the situation.’ And for the most part they said, ‘Oh, OK,’” she says.
A recent debate among contenders for the city council was praised from all sides for its civility — and it touched on many issues, not just the salmon facility. But the stakes for Nordic Aquafarms remain high: Moesswilde, the resident who was publicly rebuked by councilor Harkness? She’s now challenging Harkness for his seat.
Two other prominent salmon farm opponents are mounting write-in campaigns for the council.
It’s a six-member council, including the mayor, who votes only in the rare event of a tie. So three votes can make the majority.
“What happens on Election Day is absolutely critical,” says city councilor Mike Hurley, a sharp-elbowed project-backer and businessman who is not up for re-election this year.
Hurley says if the opponents are successful, the salmon-growing proposal is likely a no-go.
“If only two win, and there’s three who are in favor, I would still look at that as a radical message from the people of Belfast, that they bought the ‘no’ argument,” he says.
Hurley and others say today’s fight is reminiscent of a battle, 17 years ago, over whether Belfast should allow big box retailers such as Walmart into the city. Back then, Hurley was mayor, and a leader in the opposition, which was ultimately successful.
This time he remains supportive of the big new business that wants in, and next Tuesday, voters could decide which side of Belfast’s history he’ll be on.
Originally published 6:47 p.m. October 31, 2018.