The ownership of these tidal flats in Belfast matters because it's where Nordic Aquafarms would like to place its intake and outfall pipes to get to and from Penobscot Bay. Credit: Abigail Curtis / BDN

BELFAST, Maine — Belfast officials on Tuesday night voted unanimously to pursue eminent domain on a hotly contested strip of mudflat, a move that would ensure Nordic Aquafarms needed access to Penobscot Bay.  

They did so after Belfast City Attorney Bill Kelly laid out the reasons on Tuesday night why they could choose to pursue such a controversial step, including benefits detailed in a 2018 agreement with the Norwegian-owned aquaculture company and the Belfast Water District. The company wants to build a $500 million land-based salmon farm on land now owned by the water district.

Councilors voted 5-0 to issue a “Notice of Intent to Condemn” the real property interests in the intertidal zone parcel in question.

The action seeks to clear the contested deed on the property, allowing the city and Nordic Aquafarms to move forward on the project that’s projected to bring much new revenue into the city’s coffers.

Although Nordic Aquafarms gave the city the upland parcel adjacent to the mudflat last month after purchasing it from Richard and Janet Eckrote, the ownership of the intertidal zone remains in dispute. It’s the subject of a prolonged, ongoing civil court battle. Closing arguments and responses were both due by the end of July. Now, the sides must wait for Justice Robert Murray to deliberate before making a decision.

Plaintiffs Jeffrey Mabee, Judith Grace and Friends of the Harriet L. Hartley Conservation Area argued in court that the Eckrotes were not the true owners of the intertidal zone and so did not have the right to grant Nordic Aquafarms an easement to cross it.

On Tuesday, city councilors spoke, sometimes emotionally, of the fight over the fish farm, which has led to both litigation and a deep rift in the community.

“In the last week I’ve been called a Nazi, a criminal, a corporate stooge … just because I want to get lower taxes for Belfast citizens,” Councilor Neal Harkness said. “There’s so much more to it. We’re basically talking about the ability to rebuild our water system, which is seriously antiquated and in need of repair … You cannot argue against the public benefit here. It’s absurd. You may think it’s too high of a price to pay.”

People who came forward during the public portion of the meeting spoke of Biblical cautions against using eminent domain and asked councilors if they were concerned about being named a defendant in the ongoing civil lawsuit.

To many, the move clearly seemed like an end run made by the city of Belfast in an effort to bypass the protracted legal battle currently taking place over the ownership of the intertidal zone.

“Are my tax dollars going to be used to fight this, to fight something that I believe in?” Rachel Herbener of Belfast asked.

Others were skeptical about the creation of a new oceanfront park, the reason that was shared last month by municipal officials as a cause for celebration. The gift of the 2.73 acre property was made in exchange for a permanent easement that will allow Nordic Aquafarms to bring its intake and outflow pipes to Penobscot Bay.

“I am very concerned that the city would do this saying that it is for the public good, by creating this ocean park that is really for the purpose of putting the pipeline across,” Susan Cutting of Belfast said. “It’s a farce. I’m sorry, but I strongly oppose.”

The city attorney pointed to the benefits of a 2018 agreement between the city, the Belfast Water District and Nordic Aquafarms that would provide the city with land used for recreation and the water district with a significant new revenue stream. By selling water to the aquaculture company, the water district — a quasi-municipal utility that operates independently of the city — would have enough money to replace antique infrastructure, bring a new well online and keep the costs to ratepayers at a minimum, Kelly explained.

The proposed salmon farm also would bring tax revenue and new jobs to the city.

“Some folks have been wondering why the city is proceeding with this step,” Kelly said. “No one is forcing the city to do this … the city has at this point several public purposes and uses and benefits. People might not agree with it, but they are clearly [there].”

The city previously tried to acquire the claims to the land by purchasing them. In May, the city hired an appraiser to determine the value of “all of the folks claiming they had rights in the intertidal area,” Kelly said. After that, the city sent out offers to each of the persons who could possibly claim interest.

One person — an heir of Harriet L. Hartley, the landowner who began to divide and sell her property in 1946 — accepted the city’s offer of $1,200. Another person with an alleged claim is dead, and another was determined to not be an heir after all. None of the others responded to the city by the deadline of July 22.

Because the good faith action to make purchase offers failed, the city is able to now pursue eminent domain on the property.

Before the meeting, Councilor Mike Hurley said the city would not be taking any real property, but rather is considering taking the right to allow the pipes to be buried on the intertidal land in question.

“Our plan is to clear those claims through these condemnation actions so we can give an easement to put some pipes underground,” he said.

Those who oppose the fish farm intend to fight this action.

“Frankly, it is baffling why the city would pursue this incredibly expensive and ill-fated scheme,” Amy Grant of Upstream Watch, a local nonprofit organization that opposes the fish farm, said Tuesday.

Her group has retained Wesley Horton, a lawyer who represented the city of New London, Connecticut, in Kelo vs. New London, a high-profile eminent domain case argued before the Supreme Court. Horton, and New London, prevailed in that case, which involved that city’s use of eminent domain to take land from one owner and transfer it to another to further economic development.

The city will now issue notices to those with a claim on the land, letting them know of the intent to take it by eminent domain. According to a city appraisal, those who could claim an interest in the intertidal zone are Mabee, Grace, the Friends of the Harriet L. Hartley Conservation Area and Elizabeth Cooper Rankin of Media, Pennsylvania.

They will also issue a similar notice to several property owners who may claim an interest under a 1946 deed that delineated an understanding that the land would be used for residential purposes only and no business for profit. Those are Mabee, Grace; Peter A. Rasmussen and Adrienne R. Boissy of Chagrin Falls, Ohio; Michael H. Giles and Jayne C. Giles of Belfast; J. Thomas Kent, Jr. and Joan L. Kent of Belfast; the Gary Roughead Revocable Living Trust of Warrenton, Virginia, and Lyndon W. Morgan of Belfast.

Though the city council is moving ahead with eminent domain, it’s not a done deal yet. A public hearing will be held at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 12 at Belfast City Hall. The public will have a chance to comment on the action at that time. Immediately after the hearing, the council will vote on whether to move forward with the eminent domain action.