BELFAST — Attorney Bill Kelly laid out Aug. 3 the rationale for the City Council’s intended taking of disputed intertidal lands by eminent domain. The council approved an Aug. 12 public meeting regarding the action.

The city acquired the upland property located at 282 Northport Ave., formerly owned by Janet and Richard Eckrote, early last month, but title to the intertidal land in front of it is clouded, he said.

Nordic Aquafarms gave the former Eckrote property to the city through a purchase and sale agreement, and then the property was deeded directly to city by the Eckrotes. Nordic also released any rights received from Harriet L. Hartley’s heirs to the intertidal area. Hartley is the former owner of the property in dispute, which in the 1940s was a portion of a larger plot that encompassed several neighboring intertidal and upland properties.

It is the same intertidal area where Nordic Aquafarms wants to lay pipes for its land-based fish farm. Ownership of the intertidal land is currently being disputed in Waldo County Superior Court, where Justice Robert Murray has yet to rule in the civil suit.

Neighboring property owners Jeffrey Mabee and Judith Grace claim they own the intertidal area in front of the former Eckrote property and several other parcels north of their property. The Eckrotes maintain they owned the intertidal area before the land was bought by Nordic, which then gifted it to the city in exchange for an easement to lay its pipes through the property.

Several people who attended the meeting in person or by Zoom spoke against the city’s taking the intertidal zone by eminent domain and posed questions to city councilors. One resident called the idea “a farce.”

Kelly said the move would clear the title, which is defective because there are multiple title claims. The council could also proceed with eminent domain under public exigency, which is a “rational basis for the council to proceed.”

“It’s, in my opinion, a natural next step and it is only the City Council’s authority that is being exercised, no one is forcing the city to do this. It’s not done jointly with anyone who is requiring the City Council to do this,” he said.

The three major benefits to the city from taking the property through eminent domain include public access to the property, plus money for the water district and the economic benefits of new jobs and tax revenues that would result from the building of the project, Kelly said.

He argued that taking the property would ensure more oceanfront public access for city residents and extend the Little River Walking Trail over Route 1 through the upland property to the flats. The Evaluation Agreement and Options and Purchase Agreement, which has been amended four times since it was entered into Jan. 30, 2018, laid out options for the city to accept 40 acres for the Little River Walking Trail.

Right now, that trail is open to the public only with permission from the Belfast Water District, which owns it, Kelly said. The taking would help bring that options and purchase agreement to closure, giving the city those 40 acres.

Andrew Stevenson of the Friends of Harriet L. Hartley Conservation Area said the conservation easement that Mabee and Grace entered into, first with Upstream Watch and then transferred to the Friends, gives public access to the flats. Councilor Neal Harkness said that the Friends’ conservation easement could end at any time without public input and then there would be no public access to the flats.

Obtaining the 40 acres for the walking trail is contingent upon the Nordic project’s coming to fruition and the company needs access to the intertidal area to place its intake and outflow pipes, Kelly said. He added that the council has the right to protect the interests of the Water District and its ratepayers. But the Water District is run by a board of trustees and is independent of the city.

Belfast Water District intends to enter into a use agreement with Nordic that would give the district enough funds to create a new facility in a more central location, increase its revenues substantially, provide the ability to build out significant infrastructure from revenues obtained by Nordic’s contract, substantially limit the amount of chlorine it will need to use, and enable it to bring another well online, which could decrease rates for ratepayers, he said.

Kelly also identified the Nordic project as an economic benefit that will create jobs and substantially increase the city’s tax base. To that point, Harkness said,  “We’re talking about adding potentially hundreds of millions of dollars to our tax base.”

Private land in Maine cannot be taken through eminent domain for private uses, such as a commercial or industrial development, to enhance tax revenue alone or to transfer it to a for-profit business, according to the Maine Legislature website.

The city identified several people and entities from Belfast and from out of state, including Mabee and Grace and the Friends of Harriet L. Hartley Conservation Area, as having possible rights to the intertidal land.

In May the city had an appraiser determine the market value of the upland and intertidal property, Kelly said. The city used that appraisal as the basis for the compensation to be paid to those who may have a claim to the property. The appraiser found the intertidal zone is worth $40,000.

Offers were sent to people July 12 with a response deadline of July 22, he said. One Hartley heir sent back a release deed and was compensated $1,200. The city found that one person with possible interests was dead and another was not a Hartley heir, as previously thought. The city did not receive any other written responses before the deadline.

Mabee and Grace made a counter-offer to the city after the city extended the couple’s response deadline beyond July 22, according to a letter sent to Kelly July 29 by their attorney, Kim Ervin Tucker. In the letter, the couple offered to convey the existing access easement to the city to be used solely for a public access trail. Mabee and Grace asked for two parking spots at the Little River Center and $40,000, the same amount the city offered to them.

“This alternative formalizes the permissive access already granted without damaging or destroying the fragile intertidal area or amending or terminating the conservation easement,” Ervin Tucker wrote in the letter.

Upstream Watch, a local environmental group opposed to the Nordic project, announced Aug. 3 that it had hired Wesley Horton, a high-profile eminent domain attorney. President Amy Grant said the group had been planning for the possibility of the city’s taking the intertidal land by eminent domain for a couple of months. She would not go into detail about how the organization intends to object to the eminent domain order, but added, “I think it’s fair to say we’re ready.”

The public hearing is scheduled for Thursday, Aug. 12, at 6:30 p.m. at City Hall or via Zoom teleconferencing. If the city votes to take the property by eminent domain, it will identify the parties of interest and issue an order to condemn their rights, Kelly said. Then the order will be recorded and checks will be sent to people who have a possible interest in the intertidal area.

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