BELFAST — With masked Nordic Aquafarms opponents filling City Hall, several of whom spoke against an eminent domain order to take disputed intertidal land, City Council approved the order after public discussion at its Aug. 12 special meeting.

Nordic Aquafarms wants to lay intake and outflow pipes for its proposed land-based salmon farm under the land in question. The upland property previously owned by Janet and Richard Eckrote was sold to the company and given to the city by Nordic in exchange for easements to lay its pipes across the intertidal land.

Neighboring property owners Jeffrey Mabee and Judith Grace claim they own that intertidal parcel, along with several other intertidal parcels in front of upland properties north of theirs. Ownership of this same intertidal land is the subject of a civil suit in Waldo County Superior Court in which presiding Justice Robert Murray has yet to rule.

Dozens of members of the public spoke either via Zoom or in person against the eminent domain action and only a few spoke in favor of it. Many people voiced their opposition to the Nordic project.

Some members of the public called the action an attempt to take private land to benefit Nordic. “The very act of this condemnation and its timing is clear. The council is doing this solely to facilitate the Nordic project, which was founded on inaccurate and unfit grounds all along,” Belfast resident Debbie Smith said. “It’s sickening, it’s appalling and it’s duplicitous.”

Others in attendance expressed frustration with the speed of the eminent domain proceedings, with only a little more than a week for people who have interest in the land to respond to offers from the city to buy their interest. The city had to identify parties with a potential interest in the land and offer to buy their interest before it could proceed with the eminent domain order.

A few people spoke in favor of the action because of the benefits the city may receive after the project is built and in operation. Northport resident and Belfast property owner Seth Thayer said he is impressed with how the council has managed the city’s economy.

“I’ve really admired what the council has done over the last couple of years to really balance out the way that Belfast runs with different sorts of jobs and the diverse economy,” Thayer said. “… And I fully support everything that’s going on, thank you.”

Councilors Neal Harkness, Brenda Bonneville and Mike Hurley all read comments they prepared beforehand about why they supported the project and the benefits the city might receive from having Nordic build its facility here. Councilors Mary Mortier and Paul Dean spoke off the cuff about their reasons for supporting the project.

Attorney Bill Kelly, who is representing the city in the matter, laid out the public interest in taking this land by eminent domain, which he said includes increased tax revenue that is expected to decrease the city’s mill rate, access to the Little River trail currently owned by the Belfast Water District and connecting the trail to the ocean in front of the former Eckrote property.

The Water District will also benefit through a six-year purchase contract that is expected to give it a significant new revenue stream to replace ailing infrastructure, bring another well online, relocate its headquarters, and other benefits that could decrease costs to ratepayers.

The eminent domain order is necessary to clear the title, Kelly said. Without it, the city could not close an Evaluation Agreement and Options and Purchase Agreement it entered into with Nordic and the Water District in January 2018, which would prevent it from acquiring the Little River Trail from the Water District, Kelly said.

Opponents argued that the public already has access to the intertidal area through a conservation easement Mabee and Grace entered into with local conservation group Upstream Watch that was later transferred to the Friends of Harriet L. Hartley Conservation Area. And the civil case currently being decided by Murray will clear title defects, they said.

The state’s eminent domain statute states 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 the land to a for-profit business.

But Kelly said the statute only applies to land that is used for agriculture, fishing or forestry, or is improved with residential homes, commercial or industrial buildings or other structures. Upstream Watch President Amy Grant shared photos with the council showing Mabee and Janet Eckrote fishing in the disputed intertidal area.

There is a question as to what the eminent domain order might mean for the Harriet L. Hartley Conservation Area, to which Mabee and Grace issued an easement, if Murray finds that Mabee and Grace own the intertidal land.

In a recent exchange between Kelly and an assistant attorney general, the state’s attorney said only a court can dissolve a conservation easement and the Office of the Attorney General must be made a party in the proceeding. Kelly said in an email to The Republican Journal the exchange was regarding the offer package for the Harriet L. Hartley Conservation Area, but would not go into detail about laws regarding eminent domain with respect to property that has a conservation easement attached to it.

After the meeting, Nordic Aquafarms issued a press release in support of the council’s action. “We are grateful for the City Council vote tonight and we want to thank the council for putting an end to the obstruction efforts by a small group of opponents,” Nordic President Erik Heim said in the release. “We believe most people in Belfast support Nordic Aqufarms and that the City Council has done what is best for the city and its residents.”

But opponents Upstream Watch and professed landowners Mabee and Grace vowed to fight the order. Mabee and Grace’s attorney, Kim Ervin Tucker, warned before the council took action that her clients would file a suit against the city if councilors approved the eminent domain order.

“And if this council moves forward in taking my clients’  property tonight,” Tucker said. “Before the sun sets tomorrow you will be a defendant in a lawsuit over the constitutionality of your actions and the legality of it.”

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