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, Maine — Belfast city officials have rejected out of hand a counter offer made by opponents of Nordic Aquafarms as an alternative to the city’s expected taking of an easement across a contested strip of mudflat.

Last month, the city of Belfast offered a total of $40,000 to three of the entities who claim an interest in the mudflat by the outlet of the Little River in exchange for releasing those claims. It was rejected by the groups, who came back with a counteroffer that the city rejected, setting the stage for Belfast to likely take rights to the land by eminent domain as soon as this week.

More than three years after the Norwegian-owned company announced it wanted to build a $500 million salmon farm in Belfast, Nordic appears to be getting ever closer to that goal. This week, its final permit was issued from the Army Corps of Engineers, and company president Erik Heim said that Nordic will move ahead “in short order.”

But a group of activists is resisting the plan and the intertidal zone is key to their strategy. That zone is important because it is how Nordic Aquafarms intends to move seawater and treated effluent back and forth from its planned land-based farm to Penobscot Bay. With a court case over the zone’s ownership pending, opponents see the city’s intervention as a way of circumventing the decision made there and have vowed to fight any eminent domain action.

In a letter sent to City Attorney Bill Kelly on July 29, Kim Ervin Tucker, the attorney for Jeffrey Mabee, Judith Grace and the Friends of the Harriet L. Hartley Conservation Area, declined the city’s $40,000 offer. Instead, she offered that for the same sum, Mabee and Grace would convey to Belfast an existing access easement across their land and the right to use parking spaces on their property.

Tucker wrote that she believes city officials mistakenly think there is no public access to the mudflat, which was placed in a conservation easement in 2019. But Kelly said Wednesday that the counteroffer is a non-starter. It was made after the city’s deadline passed.

“In my opinion, it is legal posturing for public consumption,” he said.

He said that the city’s fundamental goal is to finalize an agreement between the city, Nordic Aquafarms and the Belfast Water District that originally had been made in 2018. Earlier this summer, Nordic purchased a waterfront property, then gave the land to the city in exchange for a permanent easement that will allow the company to bring its intake and outflow pipes to Penobscot Bay.

The city needed to attempt to acquire the claims to the mudflat by offering to purchase them before it could pursue eminent domain, but Tucker and her clients have many other concerns with the city’s likely use of eminent domain.

They believe the city’s action would only benefit Nordic Aquafarms, and that the city’s argument that the public would receive recreational benefits and enhanced access to Penobscot Bay “would not survive judicial scrutiny,” Tucker wrote.

Some of the intertidal land in question is actually part of Northport and is therefore outside Belfast’s jurisdiction, according to Tucker, who took issue with the city’s $40,000 valuation on the intertidal zone, pegging the value at $5.1 million based on other Nordic purchases.

“Needless to say, as a result of this obvious defect in the valuation of this intertidal land my clients decline the City’s offer(s) as grossly inadequate and well below the fair market value of this property — certainly not just compensation for this environmentally sensitive land,” she wrote.

On Thursday, the Belfast City Council will hold a public hearing on the eminent domain action at 6:30 p.m. at Belfast City Hall. The public will have a chance to comment on the action at that time. Immediately afterward, the council will vote on whether to move forward with the eminent domain action.

This week, the Friends of the Harriet L. Hartley Conservation Area sent an email to its supporters and fish farm opponents, encouraging them to speak at the public hearing or attend a downtown vigil at noon on Thursday.

“We hope everyone will come into town to either attend the meeting or join in a peaceful presence of objection to the Council’s intended action. Signs will be provided or bring your own,” the email said. “This is an opportunity to let the city government know that many of us oppose the use of eminent domain to take private land for corporate use.”