Harpswell all but gives up on Mitchell Field salmon farm

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HARPSWELL — The consensus among some town staff and committee members is that an aquaculture company has lost interest in building an indoor salmon farm at Mitchell Field.

“To the best of my knowledge, there’s no fish on the line,” Town Planner Mark Eyerman told the Mitchell Field Committee during a Monday discussion about updating the property’s 10-year-old master plan.

The insight came as little surprise to the panel, which had asked Eyerman if the revised plan should consider the future presence of Whole Oceans, a Portland-based aquaculture company that publicly expressed interest last November in building an indoor salmon farm on a portion of the property zoned for marine business.

The town acquired the expansive coastal property in 2001 from the U.S. Navy, which used it as a fuel depot; holdover structures still stud the property, which the public uses for passive recreational activities.

In the decade since the master plan was written, the town has planned around developing the field in advance of larger recreational and business-related goals. However, the only physical change to the site has been the construction of a bandstand gazebo, a project spearheaded by volunteers.

Whole Oceans was a prospective development, but Eyerman said the town hasn’t heard from the company in months – which the committee seemed to be aware of – and, to his knowledge, the proposal had “real constraints” in developing the property to meet the business’ utility needs.

Town Administrator Kristi Eiane has been the town’s contact for negotiations with Whole Oceans, but she declined on Tuesday to discuss the business negotiations or speculate about why the town hasn’t heard from the company. The town also contracts with Steve Levesque, director of the  Midcoast Redevelopment Authority, to consult on business matters.

In April, Eiane said the company was still doing “due diligence in terms of evaluating the site,” but had no news to report.

In March, the town voted to demolish the field’s massive pier, a $5 million project that would transform coastal and upland portions of the property into a construction zone until mid-2019.

Regardless of the obstacles posed by the construction, Eyerman said Monday that unanswered questions regarding the site’s water and sewer capabilities have hampered development in general at Mitchell Field.

The field is not connected to public water and is serviced by one well, Eyerman said, meaning potential developers – Whole Oceans or others – might encounter hefty upfront investments in either a centralized water system or expanding the well, depending on the scale of the project.

Similar questions pertain to installing septic systems, he said.

Eyerman suggested that Mitchell Field might have been ill-suited or too costly an investment for a company like While Oceans, whose business model called for large amounts of water to flow through a recirculating tank system where the fish are kept.

The company apparently also anticipated problems running enough power from Brunswick to Harpswell through the electrical system along Harpswell Neck Road, Eyerman said.

But he noted that he was not a party to conversations with the company, and deferred to Eiane.

Responding to his assessment, Eiane was wary of attributing the company’s silence to obstacles posed by utilities.

“I know that they were looking into some of these costly infrastructure pieces, but there could have been other aspects as to why we’re not hearing from them,” she said.

Rob Piaso, the entrepreneur behind the salmon farm proposal, did not respond to calls or emails seeking comment.

Taking into account that costly investments in water and sewer might be “impediments” to other parties interested in the field, as Eyerman suggested, the committee decided Monday it wants more information about the property as a marketable asset.

In the opinion of one member, more information about the site’s capabilities of cost and sale will help the town promote the property better.

“You cannot solicit anyone until you understand what the asset is,” Nate Wildes said after the meeting.

First, the committee needs to understand what kinds of development the field can support, he said. From that pool, he continued, it can determine the kind of business that adheres to the town’s larger vision for the property.

While a 2012 report outlining the business district’s infrastructure already exists on the town website, the committee voted to ask selectmen to fund a study of the area’s water and sewer capabilities.

Eyerman recommended the study, estimated at $8,000, be performed by Gorrill Palmer, the town’s engineering firm.

The key difference between the new study and the old one, Eyerman said, would be seeing “whether it would be possible to use individual wells and septic systems that do not have the big upfront costs,” Eyerman wrote in a Tuesday email.

The 2012 report “looked at creating a central water system and a common sewage disposal system, both of which require significant upfront investments,” he said.

It’s not outside the realm of possibility that the town might make such investments in order to attract business, according to the chairman of the board of selectmen.

“I hold that as an open possibility,” Rick Daniel said Tuesday.

Although for the time being, Daniel said, he considers removal of the deteriorating pier the major “roadblock” in the way of development at the field.

Callie Ferguson can be reached at 781-3661, ext. 100, or cferguson@theforecaster.net. Follow Callie on Twitter: @calliecferguson.

A Portland-based business that once expressed interest in building a salmon farm on Mitchell Field in Harpswell hasn’t contacted the town in months, leading some town officials and volunteers to believe the prospect has evaporated.

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Reporting on municipal, school, and community news in Brunswick and Harpswell. Bowdoin graduate, Wild Oats sandwich-eater. Callie can be reached at 207-781-3661 ext. 100, or cferguson@theforecaster.net.