The city of Belfast should not use eminent domain to acquire the intertidal land in front of the property formerly owned by Janet and Richard Eckrote, particularly when the ownership of that intertidal land is still being considered by a judge. Councilors are trying to cloak their action in public benefit, but it primarily benefits one private company, Nordic Aquafarms Inc.

The councilors support Nordic’s  land-based fish farm proposal because the taxes the company will potentially pay, once the project is built, could lower the town’s mill rate, and thus the property tax burden on residents.

But if councilors continue down the path of taking land for the primary benefit of a private company, they  risk losing something much more valuable:  the public trust. It is one thing to support a fish farm, and something else to support using eminent domain to take property for the benefit of a private business.

The council should be neutral in the conflict over who owns the intertidal land, not putting its thumb on the scale and attempting to circumvent the process to help one side. It is not clear if the city can legally take the property by eminent domain, based on the way the relevant state statute is written.

We wonder why the city would not just wait until Justice Robert Murray makes his decision on who owns the intertidal land before seeking such a process in the first place. If the judge decides the intertidal land was conveyed with the former Eckrote deed, then the eminent domain process will be moot.

Even if the intertidal area is owned by neighboring property owners Jeffrey Mabee and Judith Grace, the conservation easement held by the Friends of Harriet L. Hartley Conservation Area, which encompasses that intertidal area and others, grants public access. And the use contract Belfast Water District hopes to enter into with Nordic, with its projected financial rewards, is an indirect benefit, at best.

City attorney Bill Kelly said at an Aug. 3 City Council meeting that councilors were not being forced or required to take eminent domain action. But Nordic gave the upland property to the city on condition that it clear the title defects and grant the company an easement to place its pipes across the land and intertidal area as part of the purchase and sale agreement between Nordic and the city.

If the city does not grant the easement, it is unclear what the city’s ownership status in the property will be. Thus the city is under pressure to invoke eminent domain.

We believe councilors’ intentions are good, but if they attempt to get around the judicial process with an eminent domain taking that is ultimately shown to be illegal to help a private company, the damage to public trust in the city’s elected officials could outlast the fish farm itself.