A Norwegian company’s plans to bring land-based salmon farming to Maryland’s Eastern Shore hit a snag Thursday night when one of the sites it had chosen for raising the commercially valuable fish failed to gain needed local approval.

The Dorchester County Board of Appeals denied AquaCon Maryland LLC a special zoning exception that would have allowed it to build a massive indoor hatchery and fish grow-out facility on a defunct golf course bordering the Choptank River.

Tank-raised salmon

Yonathan Zohar, director of the Aquaculture Research Center at the University System of Maryland’s Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology, shows young salmon being raised in tanks in Baltimore. 

The board’s decision came at the end of a 3.5-hour meeting where neighboring residents and others suggested the industrial-scale aquaculture operation would be unsuitable in the still largely rural area just west of Cambridge. Some also voiced concerns that its wastewater discharges, though treated to a high level, might hurt the Choptank River’s water quality, undermining recent signs of improvement.

“Is there a better location?” Choptank Riverkeeper Matt Pluta asked at one point.

The 114-acre site, formerly home to the Cambridge Country Club, is one of four locations AquaCon has selected for its planned facilities on the Shore, each expected to produce up to 15,000 metric tons of salmon annually.

AquaCon had previously declared its plans to build a facility on the outskirts of Federalsburg, a small town in Caroline County on a tributary of the Nanticoke River. The other two sites are in Cambridge and Denton, also in Caroline County, company representatives told the board.

Ryan Showalter, an Easton lawyer representing AquaCon, said it is pursuing multiple sites at the same time with the intent to start construction next year on whichever one first receives regulatory approvals. AquaCon is one of several mostly European companies rushing to build land-based salmon farms in the United States that use new developments in recirculating aquaculture technology.

Showalter touted the economic benefits for largely rural Dorchester County, noting that the company plans to invest $300 million in each facility and that each would create 150 jobs, a number of them high-paying profession and technical positions.

“When constructed, this will be an industry-changing, world-leading facility,” he said.

Bob Rauch, the company’s Easton-based engineering consultant, stressed that each would be an “all-green” facility. Unlike most open-water salmon farming operations in Europe, these fish would be raised indoors in tanks, with nearly all of the water recirculated and filtered to remove waste. They would not be fed antibiotics or be at risk of escape into the wild, two issues with pen-reared fish.

Solar panels would be placed on the rooftop of the massive 27.5-acre buildings to help offset the facilities’ energy needs. The solid waste produced by raising 3 million fish a year would be converted to energy-generating biogas via anaerobic digestion.

Showalter acknowledged that the size of the building — the largest on the Shore — was daunting. But he said the company pledged to plant a thick buffer of trees around it that in about 12 years should have grown tall enough to hide it from view from the road or neighboring properties.

Several of those attending the meeting praised the company’s efforts to minimize environmental impacts, but they voiced concerns about the wastewater it would generate. The facility would use 70,000–80,000 gallons of groundwater daily and pump an equivalent amount of pretreated wastewater to Cambridge’s sewage treatment plant.

The proposed Dorchester facility would also have withdrawn up to 2.3 million gallons of water daily from the Choptank and discharged the same amount back into the river. That water would cycle through tanks where the salmon would be held just before being harvested so they can be purged of naturally occurring microbes that can give their flesh an unappetizing musty odor and taste.

Rauch said the Choptank water would be treated before being returned to the river, with the discharge meeting the state’s limits for nitrogen and phosphorus.

Tom Fisher, a professor at the Horn Point laboratory of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, which is next door to the proposed country club site, expressed some concerns about the potential impact on the lower Choptank. The river is suffering from excess nutrients from agricultural runoff and wastewater, but Fisher said it has shown water quality improvements recently in the wake of an upgrade of the treatment plant in Cambridge.

While the added wastewater coming from the municipal plant and the aquaculture facility’s direct discharge to the river would be treated to reduce nutrient levels, Fisher said he was concerned that the Choptank’s recovery might be undermined by the amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus remaining in those additional discharges.

“Even if there’s a tiny concentration of something in that water, it’s going to contribute to the impairment,” warned Fred Pomeroy of Dorchester Citizens for Planned Growth.

Pomeroy suggested the company focus first on developing its site in Cambridge, which has industrial land in need of redevelopment. Showalter, the company lawyer, said the city site isn’t suitable at this time because it doesn’t have access to the Choptank for purge water. The company is working on a way to eliminate the musty odor in the fish without needing river water, but that’s not ready yet.

Alan Girard of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation questioned how the facility would manage the stormwater runoff coming off the 27.5-acre rooftop. Rauch said the company has at least at least three different approaches in mind, including possibly using the old golf course’s irrigation system to cycle the runoff back into the ground. That portion of the property borders the river, though, where land use is strictly controlled by the state’s Critical Area law, and company representatives said they were still working out how to meet those requirements.

County appeals board members voiced some doubts about the stormwater and the municipal treatment plant’s ability to handle the aquaculture facility’s wastewater, even though company representatives said it had ample capacity to do so.

In the end, though, the appeals board decision seemed influenced most heavily by nearby residents’ complaints about the impacts on their quality of life of such an operation.

“It’s quiet, it’s peaceful, and that’s the way we’d like to keep it,” said David Rineholt, who said he and his wife Kathleen had built a home next to the old country club 25 years ago.

The site is accessed by a narrow two-lane road, which company representatives acknowledged might need some upgrading to handle 30-35 trucks per week. Otherwise, they said, the traffic generated by the 150-person workforce would be roughly equivalent to what the country club had experienced.

“It will tax traffic,” said board member Charles Dayton, Jr., a sentiment echoed by the rest of the board.

He and a couple of other board members seemed to suggest they might reach a different conclusion if presented with additional information and studies to address concerns raised at the meeting.

Afterward, though, AquaCon representatives indicated they wouldn’t try to win the board over but instead focus on getting regulatory approvals to go forward in Federalsburg and Denton.

“We have other sites,” said Showalter. “We redirect.”

Tim Wheeler is the Bay Journal's associate editor and senior writer, based in Maryland. You can reach him at 410-409-3469 or twheeler@bayjournal.com.

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