New bends in the major water pipes for a proposed land-based salmon farm may have put a kink in the permitting process for Nordic Aquafarms, thanks to an obscure state law that governs ownership of the intertidal zone.

Nordic recently revised its plans for intake and discharge pipes that would shuttle water between Penobscot Bay and the land-based salmon farm, a recirculating aquaculture system that would be the second-largest of its kind in the world.

Rather than a straight line from the shore to to points offshore as originally proposed, the pipes in the latest drawing are routed southwest across mudflats of the Little River estuary before bending back north and then east into the bay.

Elizabeth Ransom, a consultant who is overseeing the permitting process for Nordic Aquafarms, said the change was necessary to keep the pipe within the littoral zone of the adjacent property where Nordic has an easement for the pipes. The littoral zone extends mainland property lines into the ocean for up to 1,000 feet.

Nordic has applied to the state Bureau of Parks and Lands for a submerged lands lease to lay the underground pipes on the seabed below the low-tide line. Additionally, the company has easements for the dry-land stretch between the salmon farm site and the shoreline.

That leaves the gap between the high and low tide lines.

While common wisdom holds that the intertidal strip is public, an ordinance dating to the 1640s Massachusetts Bay Colony cedes everything down to the low-tide mark to private landowners. There are exceptions, for “fishing, fowling and navigation," and beachcombers often get a pass, though Maine's Supreme Judicial Court ruled against them in a pair of cases in Wells in the 1980s.

How the state interprets the law with regard to a major engineering project, like the one proposed by Nordic Aquafarms, remains to be seen.

The Bureau of Parks and Lands is planning to restart its 30-day public comment period in light of the new plan, according to Carol DiBello, submerged lands coordinator. This time around, she said, notifications will be sent to the town of Northport and Northport Village Corp., which were not previously notified. Additionally, the bureau will notify the city of Belfast and anyone who commented on the initial review.

Plans drafted by Nordic Aquafarms' partners Cianbro and Woodard & Curran do not indicate a conflict with neighboring properties, but they don't clearly rule it out either, and DiBello said the possibility is something the bureau will consider.

Maine Department of Environmental Protection, where Nordic has a pending application for a wastewater discharge permit, is also looking into whether the company has right, title and interest to the intertidal zone, according to Gregg Wood of DEP, who is overseeing the process.

Changes to the route of the pipe aren't relevant to the wastewater discharge permit application, he said, as long as the end of the pipe stays in the same place. Wood said he was told by one of Nordic's consultants that the discharge location will be the same, despite the new route.

But ownership of the intertidal zone might be a factor, he said.

Wood did not indicate whether this would put the brakes on the DEP permit process, but he said Kevin Martin, an attorney at DEP, is currently looking into whether Nordic has right, title and interest for the area of the intertidal zone the pipe would occupy.

Ransom said she is aware of Maine's relatively unique take on coastal land rights, but said she hasn't heard anything from state regulators to indicate that Nordic's applications are lacking.

"It's a legal question about who owns what and how, when you talk about the water rights in Maine, because we're one of the only states where you can own the intertidal area," she said. "As I understand it, Parks and Lands has been satisfied with what we've submitted. But having said that, we haven't received something back that says 'approved.'"

Nordic Aquafarms is planning to hold a non-required public information meeting about the DEP wastewater discharge permit at 6 p.m. Monday, Dec. 17, at the University of Maine Hutchinson Center in Belfast.

In a news release, the company said, additionally, it will be sending notification of the meeting to all landowners within one mile of the proposed intake and discharge pipes.

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