GOULDSBORO — Selectmen will hold a special town meeting Monday, Dec. 13, to get voters’ OK to transfer up to $100,000 from unappropriated surplus to the town’s legal reserve account. The $20,000 budgeted for legal services this fiscal year has nearly been spent due in part due to American Aquafarms’ plan to make the Maine Fair Trade facility its base for a Frenchman Bay salmon farm.
The company plans to process a projected 66 million pounds of Atlantic salmon annually from two proposed 60-acre sites in Frenchman Bay.
Last Tuesday, Nov. 23, selectmen voted 4-0 to schedule the special town meeting at interim Gouldsboro Town Manager Eve Wilkinson’s suggestion. She informed them that “the town was getting close to its threshold” of $20,000 budgeted for the 2021-22 fiscal year’s legal expenses. She added that Rudman Winchell attorney Tim Pease just submitted an estimate for his services for the coming months. Earlier this fall, Pease advised the town and helped draft the six-month moratorium ordinance on finfish aquaculture development that was overwhelmingly passed by voters at a Nov. 15 special town meeting.
Voters at the 2021 annual Town Meeting last June, Wilkinson noted, already approved the use of up to $100,000 from the undesignated surplus fund to offset property taxes.
“We didn’t [end up] having to use it,” she explained, recalling that $75,000 was transferred for that purpose instead from the town’s inactive land purchase reserve. That transfer also was approved at Town Meeting.
The Nov. 23 meeting was attended by Gouldsboro residents and members of Friends of Schoodic Peninsula, a local environmental conservation organization that opposes American Aquafarms’ proposed operations in Prospect Harbor and Frenchman Bay. They asked selectmen whether the town plans to continue consulting Pease and Winter Harbor seasonal resident and Washington, D.C., attorney Robert Nichols about how the town should proceed to review and possibly propose amendments addressing large-scale fish farms in Gouldsboro’s current site plan, land use and shoreland ordinances. A review of the town’s comprehensive plan already is underway.
Gouldsboro resident and Friends of Schoodic co-founder Deirdre McArdle told selectmen some Schoodic Peninsula residents are prepared to contribute funds to offset the town’s legal expenses regarding the American Aquafarms project.
“What is your plan?” McArdle asked the Select Board. “Are you going to continue with these attorneys?”
Select Board Chairman Dana Rice responded by saying the board would continue consulting Pease and Nichols as the need arises. Rice said the town had been advised not to accept private donations to bolster its legal reserve account because such action could be construed down the road as “bias” against the American Aquafarms project.
“We don’t want to appear to be taking sides with anyone,” he said.
As for the review of town regulations, Rice reiterated that the Planning Board had been tasked with the relevant town ordinances’ review and “it is not the board’s [Select Board’s] intent to micromanage the Planning Board’s work.”
Present at the meeting, Planning Board Chairman Ray Jones said Borrego Solar Systems Inc.’s proposed 5,050-panel solar farm off Route 1 had delayed the board in charting its course to review and possibly incorporate finfish aquaculture in the town’s ordinances. He said Friends of Schoodic Peninsula members and other citizens are welcome to attend the board’s two monthly public meetings, where the review work will be conducted.
“We have not laid out a road map of how we are going to do it,” Jones said.
In a related matter, the Select Board reviewed Nichols’ Nov. 21 memorandum suggesting steps he could take on the town’s behalf on a pro-bono basis. They include drafting a letter asking American Aquafarms to detail its proposed Prospect Harbor and Frenchman Bay operations as “a prerequisite” for the Planning Board to draft ordinance amendments concerning 10-acre-plus fish farms. He also recommended requiring the Norwegian-back company to fund an expert study of its project for the town as a condition if and when the company seeks municipal permits or licenses for its proposed Prospect Harbor operation.
In addition, Nichols suggested that the town hire an expert, “selected by the Planning Board,” to develop an impact statement concerning American Aquafarms’ plan to make the 100,000-square-foot Maine Fair Trade facility and wharf its base for tending the two 15-pen sites in Frenchman Bay, processing the harvested Atlantic salmon and rearing juvenile fish stock on site.
Responding to Nichols’ memorandum, Rice disagreed with some of the recommendations, saying the moratorium’s mandate is to address future finfish aquaculture operations in general, not to single out and preempt American Aquafarms’ application. The company’s lease application to the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR) has not yet been deemed complete by that agency.
Rice said the moratorium and review of town rules “is not to stop something that someone dislikes” and such a move could spur legal action.
In his memorandum, Nichols, himself, offered to research aquaculture-related regulations — state, federal and municipal — and present an a-la-carte menu of rules and conditions in states such as Alaska, Virginia, Massachusetts and Washington state.
Nichols recommended tasking Rudman Winchell to request that the DMR, Maine Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers delay ruling on American Aquafarms’ lease and wastewater discharge permit applications until Gouldsboro has determined “terms, conditions, restrictions applicable to the American Aquafarms’ project.”
Nichols also recommended that Rudman Winchell research the DMR and DEP’s apparent “exclusive jurisdiction” of aquaculture operations beyond the intertidal zone in state waters and whether Gouldsboro may have broader authority than currently perceived. And, what legal risks would the town face in challenging the state’s authority?
In an accompanying draft letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, identifying himself as counsel for the town of Gouldsboro, Nichols formally asked the Corps’ Senior Project Manager and Team Leader Jay Clement to delay the federal agency’s review of American Aquafarms’ proposed operation until Gouldsboro has fully studied the project’s impact on Gouldsboro citizens.
A majority of the selectmen, however, were opposed to sending the suggested letter.
“We need to make sure we don’t do anything that makes us liable down the road,” Rice said.