A sign for the Harriet Hartley Conservation Area marks a piece of disputed land in the intertidal zone near the Little River in Belfast. Credit: Abigail Curtis / BDN

BELFAST — In an unusual first day of a civil trial in Belfast Tuesday, the judge, lawyers and others took a field trip to a contested mudflat so the judge could get a feel for the land himself.

Waldo County Superior Court Justice Robert Murray was joined on the low-tide trip to the mouth of the Little River and the shoreline north of it by two surveyors, several lawyers, two U.S. Marshals and some of the other people involved in the legal proceedings.

As the group walked along the rain-slick rocks and looked at the green crabs scuttling across the mud, they also heard as surveyors Donald Richards and Jim Dorsky gave a basic explanation of what each believed to be the boundary in question.

The field trip was friendly, but the reason for being there in the first place was serious.

In the right, title and interest trial, plaintiffs Jeffrey Mabee, Judith Grace and Friends of the Harriet L. Hartley Conservation Area are trying to show that defendants Nordic Aquafarms and Janet and Richard Eckrote don’t have the right to access the intertidal zone next to the Eckrotes’ house on Northport Avenue.

The Eckrotes say they do, but Mabee and Grace maintain that a 1946 deed shows that they are the clear owners of the land.

Ownership of the mudflat is important because it’s where Nordic Aquafarms intends to bury pipes to funnel water to and from Penobscot Bay. Access to the bay is critical for the $500 million land-based salmon farm the company wants to build on the inland side of U.S. Route 1.

During the first part of the day, Richards testified in court as an expert witness for plaintiffs Mabee, Grace and the Harriet L. Hartley Conservation Area. Under questioning by David Perkins, an attorney for the plaintiffs, the surveyor explained that in the 1940s, Harriet Hartley had owned the waterfront land extending north from the Little River.

In 1946, she sold the first of several parcels of her land to a man named Fred Poor, Janet Eckrote’s grandfather. When she did so, she used very specific language in the deed, Richards said, that he believes made very clear she wished to retain ownership of the intertidal land. In his reading of the deed, there’s not a lot of ambiguity, the surveyor said.  

“She retained all her flats,” he said. “The description was of her making, and she chose to exclude the land in front of Fred Poor’s parcel.”

This exclusion is important because it meant that the intertidal land remained part of Hartley’s own parcel, he said. When she sold that a few years later, the ownership of the intertidal land passed to the buyers. When Mabee and Grace eventually bought Hartley’s old property, they became the owners of the intertidal zone along several neighboring parcels, Richards said.

“Who owns the intertidal land abutting the Eckrote’s property?” Perkins asked the expert.  

“In my opinion, based on the deed, it is Jeffrey Mabee and Judith Grace,” Richards responded.

But in her cross-examination, Melissa Hewey, attorney for Nordic Aquafarms, worked to show that the ownership was not as clear and simple as the surveyor believed. She pointed out that even in some of Richards’ own surveys and sketches of the property, there are discrepancies. For example, the surveyor said that in his opinion, one of the boundary lines for the Mabee-Grace property is the low water mark of the Little River, which is tidal.

“If your opinion was that it was at the low water mark of the Little River, why did you draw the line at the center of the Little River?” Hewey asked.

“It would appear to be a drafting error,” Perkins said.

The trial will continue Wednesday with more testimony from the plaintiffs, before the defendants begin making their case. 

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the day the trial would continue.