JONESPORT — A large-scale, land-based aquaculture facility is one step closer to breaking ground after the Board of Appeals unanimously upheld the Planning Board’s decision to approve the project.
Two groups, Protect Downeast and Roque Island Gardner Homestead Corp. (RIGHC), had appealed the local permit issued to Kingfish Maine, with the hearing held Feb. 14 and 15.
A final, written decision will be issued Feb. 28 but Board of Appeals Chairperson Holly Iossa said she does not anticipate any changes in the board’s ruling.
“The general consensus of the board was that after reviewing everything the Planning Board did not err in its decision,” Iossa said.
However, attorney Elizabeth Boepple, who represents both groups that challenged the project, doesn’t see this as the end of the road.
“We need to see the written decision and final vote of the board, but Protect Downeast is in this for the long haul,” she told The American.
Boepple also represents environmental group Eastern Maine Conservation Initiative (EMCI) and RIGHC in their appeal of Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) permits issued to Kingfish Maine, filed in Kennebec Superior Court Sept. 6, 2022. RIGHC represents the interests of seasonal residents of Roque Island situated in Chandler Bay, less than 6 miles from Jonesport. An earlier permit appeal to the state Environmental Board of Appeals, with Sierra Club Maine Chapter as a third plaintiff, was denied.
Kingfish Maine plans to build a $110 million facility on 93 acres fronting Chandler Bay to grow yellowtail kingfish, a mackerel species that grows up to 8 feet long. Kingfish Maine is a subsidiary of Dutch aquaculture concern Kingfish, which has operated a similar, if smaller, facility for three years in the Netherlands. It filed its first state permit application in 2020 and has in hand all required state and federal permits.
“We’re very grateful that the Board of Appeals took their time and reviewed each issue thoroughly,” Kingfish Maine Operations Manager Megan Sorby said. “This resulted in the same findings that their Planning Board did, which was to uphold the [Planning Board’s] decision and know that this project is responsible to this town.”
The project has local support. A citizen petition-led vote on a six-month moratorium on aquaculture failed by more than 2-1 at a July 2022 special town meeting. And supporters showed up to the Board of Appeals hearing too.
“Our town is dying, like a lot of small towns,” former long-term Selectman Dwight Alley said before the meeting began. “We have no industry here. We’re losing 1 percent of our population a year.”
Lynn Alley noted that entry to the lobster fishing industry is limited and the facility would help build the school population and tremendously help the town’s tax base. “[Protect Downeast and Roque Island Gardner Homestead Corp.] are a very vocal minority,” she said.
The project will bring 70 permanent jobs to the region, which Sorby said will be filled locally “as much as possible,” along with construction and related jobs in building the facility.
The facility will use a recirculating aquaculture system (RAS) to grow up to 16,000 pounds of yellowtail kingfish in two structures in an operation using nearly 22 acres of the site. The site is located in the residential and shoreland zones.
The operation will take in 19,812 gallons of seawater from Chandler Bay per minute through two, 1,400-foot-long intake pipes. Two outtake pipes 2,800 feet long and 4 inches in diameter will discharge water, of which about one-third will be fish culture or process water containing nitrogen and other pollutants. The state discharge permit allows up to 1,580 pounds of total nitrogen discharge per day averaged over a month.
From May to October, Kingfish must monitor weekly four sites in Chandler Bay for effluents including nitrogen, phosphorous and ammonia, according to the Natural Resources Protect Act permit. However, the Planning Board requested two additional places “based on local experience,” Sorby said. “We are held to a very high standard.”
Grounds for appeal
Protect Downeast’s appeal rests on three points. First is that while the DEP may balance the economic or social benefits of a project against potential harm to water quality, the local ordinance does not allow for that.
“That’s not anywhere in the shoreland zoning ordinance,” Boepple said.
However, board alternate Ernest Rackcliff questioned the conclusion that operations will affect water quality to the point of impairing designated uses or lowering its classification, which is the level guiding both the DEP and local ordinance.
“Lowering water quality doesn’t necessarily mean there will be an adverse effect,” Rackliff said.
A second claim is that the Planning Board incorrectly interpreted the town’s land use development ordinance by classifying the project as a water-dependent use, which is allowed in the residential zone, and not as an industrial /commercial structure, which is not.
“This installation by your own definition is industrial … so why does a water-dependent system actually trump that?” Protect Downeast President Richard Aishton asked. His was one of six public comments evenly divided between those for the project and those against it.
The third point the appeal rested on was that the project will allegedly adversely affect existing commercial fishing activities, a performance standard of the shoreland zoning ordinance.
A Maine Department of Marine Resources review of the project found that “construction of the pipeline and effluent discharge should have little or no long-term impact to the lobster industry landings or biology” or to the scallop fishery, according to the DEP review prior to issuing the NRPA permit.
The DEP did find that equipment “could cause entanglement of traps and possible loss of gear” and carries “potential concerns with setting fishing gear directly on or beside” the intake structures and diffusers, a point raised in the appeal. Resident Carrie Peabody noted to the board her concerns that the facility would harm local lobstermen, which includes her husband. “He feels threatened by this recent decision,” she said.
Kingfish Maine attorney Adrian Kendall, of Portland firm Norman, Hanson & DeTroy, reminded board members that “the appellants carry the burden of proof and it’s a very high standard to meet. It requires a finding that the decision of the Planning Board was so clearly wrong that it cannot be upheld.”
Julie Farris, a neighbor to the proposed facility, backed the Planning Board’s decision. “I think the Planning Board took their time and deliberated each and every one of the performance standards,” she said during public comments.
Board members agreed.
“It was not a quick, easy decision on the Planning Board’s part,” Bill Blackstone said during deliberations Feb. 15. “I feel the Planning Board, with counsel, made the right decision.”
February 17, 2023