The few residents who attended an April 25 special town meeting took just 10 minutes to reject the purchase of land along the Little River — after nearly and hour and a half of discussion before the meeting began.

The land is owned by Belfast Water District, which also owns nearby dams as well as land on the other side of the river and reservoir in Belfast. A new business, Nordic Aquafarms, and the city of Belfast entered into a contract in January for purchase of two parcels Belfast land as well as the Northport land. The city, under the contract, would retain a strip of land along the river on both sides including existing trails on Water District land. That signed contract, attorneys said, triggered Northport’s right of first refusal to purchase the land in its town.

Belfast Water District attorney Andrew Hamilton said Maine Public Utilities Commission defines how water district land sales are handled.

“The right of first refusal doesn’t arise until there’s a contract offer,” he said. “First refusal is only interesting with a big project like this.”

Hamilton said state law also requires the terms of the agreed contract to apply to first refusal parties. Because Belfast city officials already agreed the land would be used for recreation and passive use, with possible easements for the aquafarm such as underground pipes, Northport also could allow only those uses, he said.

Attorneys were split on whether the town would gain more standing during the permitting process for Nordic Aquafarm if it owned the land. Representing Northport’s legal interests, Amanda Meader said, “Yes and no.” Hamilton concurred. But Belfast City Attorney Bill Kelly gave an emphatic no. Kelly said all of the permitting for the project must be complete before the closing.

“The real question is after the permitting,” he said. “More standing? I don’t think so.”

For the same reason, Kelly said, official talks have not been opened with Coastal Mountains Land Trust, the expected recipient of easements and/or eventual owner of the land in Belfast and Northport.

“No deep discussions yet because the property hasn’t been acquired,” Kelly said. “But that’s the plan — to go all the way around to connect with the Belfast Bay Watershed trail. It’s not in writing yet, but that’s the plan.”

Northport Selectman Drexell White said the board was not comfortable making a choice regarding the property on behalf of the town.

“We didn’t feel it was our decision to make,” he said. “Because it’s a one-time thing and it’s property, it’s really up to the town to make the decision.”

About 50 people attended the informational and special town meeting, though not all — selectmen among them — voted. Questions about the project ranged from legal to environmental. Sandy Wallace sought assurances Belfast would follow through on its plans with the land trust.

“This was a bit of a shotgun wedding back in January,” Kelly said. “That’s down the road a bit but I assure you the only use is conservation.”

Selectman Mark Humphreys joked, “I feel like it was a shotgun wedding and we weren’t even invited.”

Kelly noted the exact location of the aquafarm has not been determined; therefore, any required easements are still up in the air. Regardless of ownership, he said, the use will be aimed at conservation.

“One way or another, it’s going to be locked up,” Kelly said.

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions and what I’ve heard are intentions,” one resident later remarked. “I want more than intentions.”

Resident Paul Sheridan said he wanted the opinion of Meader about the purchase.

“It is possible you could vote to purchase (the property) and refuse to play ball with Nordic,” she said. “It’s not one I recommend.”

When asked why, she alluded to the possibility of a losing lawsuit or needlessly spending money on legal issues that could arise if that route is taken.

Other residents spoke in favor of allowing Belfast to purchase the Northport property.

“We’d make more work by purchasing it,” one woman argued. Resident Sid Block later said, “Nordic Aquafarms is paying Belfast a lot of money, so if they want to spend the money and buy the property, I’m inclined to let Belfast buy it.”

Ultimately, a majority of voters agreed. The option to invoke the right of first refusal was defeated with 15 people in favor and 27 against.

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