Harpswell's former Navy fuel depot eyed for indoor salmon farm

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HARPSWELL — A new Portland-based company has formally expressed interest in developing an indoor salmon farm on Mitchell Field.

The development would possibly require the town to rezone the district of Mitchell Field designated for marine business to enlarge the district, but relinquish its coastal frontage.

Town Administrator Kristi Eiane announced the news at a Nov. 3 Board of Selectmen meeting, where the board also authorized up to $10,000 toward funding an engineering firm to conduct an analysis of the water tower at Mitchell Field.

Eiane will also seek bids for a firm to evaluate and possibly manage the 100-foot water tower for use as a telecommunications tower.

She said a Maine-based company called Whole Oceans is interested in raising Atlantic salmon on the parcel using a land-based recirculating aquaculture system, which breeds fish in a system of indoor tanks. 

The company is a recently established subsidiary of New Jersey-based Emergent Holdings.

The 2007 Mitchell Field Master Plan created two zones for marine businesses to provide revenues that would offset the costs of developing the surrounding areas, as well as increase the town’s tax base. Located north of the pier’s causeway, the first zone is approximately 5 acres and includes 550 feet of water frontage. The second, adjacent zone is about 4 aces and inland.

At the March 2011 Town Meeting, the town authorized a warrant allowing selectmen to sign a multi-year lease for the property for up to 30 years, as long as the lessee is based in Maine.

Rob Piasio, managing partner of Emergent Holdings and a Yarmouth native, explained in a statement that the recirculating aquaculture system is “the fastest (growing) segment within aquaculture.” Aquaculture is already the primary means of harvesting salmon in an industry that has aggressively depleted wild stocks, he said.

The indoor system means the company is uninterested in the 550 feet of coastal frontage included in Marine Business Zone 1 on Mitchell Field.

Piaso wrote that the current zoning “may be a sub-optimal solution for both Whole Oceans and town residents,” and asked Harpswell to consider rezoning the district in a way that would be mutually beneficial.

“It is unlikely the two combined marine business parcels will accommodate our building envelope,” which Piaso indicates will be 550,000 square feet.

“We respectfully suggest the town consider an alternate recreational use for the magnificent parcel. Meanwhile, Whole Oceans could be set back farther from the waterfront … and landscaped to create minimal visual impact on the coastline and recreational waterfront activities,” the statement continued.

Rezoning the marine business districts would require approval from Town Meeting next March.

Piasio was at Mitchell Field on Tuesday morning, working with an architect on designs that might minimize the visual impact of a building on the coastline. He said he’s committed to forging a neighborly, transparent relationship with the community, and preserving the beauty of the region. 

“I assure you, the last thing I would want to do as a Mainer is to do anything to this view,” he said that morning.

The company’s establishment in Harpswell may influence the designs plans for a replacement for the Mitchell Field Pier, since its statement indicated a desire to develop a dual-use commercial/recreational pier. 

The Mitchell Field committee is set to make a recommendation for a new pier ahead of Town Meeting, and community members at an Oct. 4 meeting brainstormed replacement designs that ranged from a recreational boat launch to a structure fit for commercial use.

Based on that input, architect Barney Baker is scheduled to unveil possible designs at a Nov. 14  committee meeting, where the community will weigh in on their favorites.

Piasio also stated an interest in investing in the development of the “recreational waterfront park” on Mitchell Field, and entering into a profit-sharing agreement with the town.

“We are confident our business model is robust and lights the way toward mutually inclusive industry, community and sustainable practices,” Piaso wrote.

Piaso attached a table that estimates the company would create 36 jobs in Harpswell by 2025, with a payroll of more than $3.7 million. The detailed commercial terms of the business plan are still confidential.

Other organizations have expressed interest in Mitchell Field’s marine business district in the past, but nothing ever developed.

In 2012, Harpswell Oceanic Center was in talks to develop an education and research building in the district, but negotiations with selectmen failed.

As recently as March, Harpswell Coastal Academy’s John D’Anieri pitched an idea to create a pilot educational campus called the Propeller Project – “a coastal center for doers and thinkers” – but a written agreement has yet to be reached. 

If selectmen decide to negotiate with Whole Oceans, the town will move forward with a site plan review of the development plans. 

Water tower

Selectman Elinor Multer told the rest of the board that “the controversy of whether or not to keep or demolish the water tower is not new,” and has caused the town to delay taking action for two years.

But the town will get closer to making a decision in January, after selectmen authorized the engineering firm Woodard and Curran to assess the tower’s potential for reuse as a storage tank, or a mounting tower for telecommunications equipment.

The water tower, a vestige of a former Navy fuel depot, has not been used since at least 1992, and it remains unclear whether the tower’s 100,000 gallon tank is still servicable.

In their letter to selectmen, the firm said it will “make recommendations on which improvements need to be completed if the tank is to be brought back into active services, and if the tank is to be left in place but not be filled with water,” in the case of its use as a telecommunications tower.

Treasurer Marguerite Kelly told the selectmen that the two possibilities are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

The firm will also make  recommendations as to whether the tank meets domestic and fire flow requirements, based on projections of water demand supplied by the town’s planner, and for alternative water supply and distribution methods.

Recommendations are set to be completed by Jan. 13, 2017, and the costs of assessment are not to exceed $10,000.

Meanwhile, the town will issue a request for proposals from firms interested in the tower for potential telecommunications use. The firms would evaluate the property – which Kelly suggested was typical of wireless carriers prior to entering into a lease – and then discuss the possibility of managing the tower on the town’s behalf.

Both reports were requested by the Tower Task force, which formed after the 2015 Town Meeting in order to provide written recommendations toward the possible future uses of the tower.  

Multer said “both sides are represented on the committee,” which “has functioned well in a tricky situation.”

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

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Reporter on the Brunswick/Harpswell beat. Proud Bowdoin grad that you can find reporting on municipal, school, and community news, or inside the many coffee and sandwich shops around the Midcoast. Callie can be reached at 207-781-3661 ext. 100.