GOULDSBORO — The Planning Board was charged Thursday night with drafting a moratorium prohibiting any proposed large-scale aquaculture projects in town from consideration for six months. The Select Board’s directive is intended to provide time to review and possibly revamp the town’s current regulations and give town officials greater authority over open-ocean finfish farms seeking to locate a processing plant, hatchery or other infrastructure on land in town.
At its meeting Thursday night, the Select Board voted 5-0 to direct the Planning Board to review and refine the draft “Town of Gouldsboro Moratorium Ordinance – Aquaculture Development” before presenting it to townspeople at a public hearing. Then, voters will have the final say on the proposed aquaculture development moratorium at a special town meeting. The impetus to put the question soon to voters is being driven by the Select Board’s concern that the town’s “quality of life and health and safety” could be jeopardized in the near future unless its regulations are updated to include finfish farms whose ocean sites comprise 10 acres or more.
At the Select Board’s request, attorney Tim Pease of Rudman Winchell of Bangor drew up the draft moratorium and gave an overview to the few dozen citizens who attended Thursday’s meeting in person and via Zoom. Earlier this month, the town engaged Rudman Winchell to review Gouldsboro’s shoreland, land use zoning, solid waste and harbor ordinances and comprehensive plan and determine whether they were adequate to deal with large-scale fish farms. The answer was no.
At present, Pease reported Gouldsboro’s 2005 comprehensive plan does not address aquaculture. Nor do fish farms and their associated land-based infrastructure figure in the town’s ordinances. “If you don’t have rules in place, they are entitled to a permit,” he explained.
Pease said the moratorium would temporarily halt the town’s handling of any 10-acre-plus finfish farm’s forthcoming applications for permits, licenses, certificates and any other authorization for constructing and operating facilities in Gouldsboro. “It doesn’t mean you are for or against a particular project,” the attorney said, referring to the moratorium. “It’s to take a pause to have [adequate] rules in place.”
The local moratorium would not apply to aquaculture developers’ proposed offshore sites where the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR), Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have jurisdiction.
Pease said Gouldsboro and other Maine towns are entitled to impose moratoriums under the Maine Constitution, but the attorney noted such suspensions are only valid for six months. He said the town can make a case to extend the freeze for another 180 days, but he cautioned town officials against prolonging the process too much and said extensive delays can call into question a community’s credibility and commitment to do the work and take action.
The moratorium initiative comes as Gouldsboro and other Frenchman Bay towns grapple with American Aquafarms’ $250 million plan to raise Atlantic salmon at two 60-acre sites northeast of Long Porcupine Island and north of Bald Rock Ledge. The Norwegian-backed company has a purchase agreement to acquire the former Maine Fair Trade seafood processing complex in Prospect Harbor, but no transaction has taken place. The company’s DMR application to lease the two sites, which would have 15 net pens apiece, has been submitted, but has not been found complete.
Meanwhile, American Aquafarms’ DEP wastewater discharge permit application is complete, but the next step in the regulatory process is for the DEP to hold a public meeting and to conduct its own thorough review and possibly hold a public hearing.
Besides drafting the moratorium, Pease said he and his staff scrutinized both the DMR and DEP permits and found few details in either about American Aquafarms’ proposed salmon-processing operation and fish hatchery in the Maine Fair Trade property. The attorney said DMR staffers also told him that the agency’s review of the project won’t begin until the application is complete. Then, they said an underwater diver would be dispatched to scrutinize both sites, but not this winter.