BELFAST — Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey agreed Feb. 18 to withdraw claims in a lawsuit brought by landowners challenging the city’s eminent domain action last August over intertidal land under a conservation easement. Nordic Aquafarms announced it will execute its purchase and sale agreement option with the Water District and the city.

The Attorney General’s Office can intervene in circumstances where a conservation easement could be terminated or amended. It had filed two motions to intervene on behalf of the conservation easement in the lawsuit challenging the eminent domain action.

Frey’s decision to withdraw came after Waldo County Superior Court Justice Robert Murray’s October 2021 ruling in favor of the city in another land dispute involving Nordic’s proposed fish farm brought by property owners Jeffrey Mabee and Judith Grace, who claimed historic deeds proved they owned the intertidal land under the conservation easement. The couple are appealing that ruling.

They sued neighbors Janet and Richard Eckrote, who owned the property upland of the intertidal land that was in dispute before the upland parcel was transferred to the city. The Eckrotes entered into an optional easement agreement with Nordic allowing the company to bury its intake and outflow pipes beneath their upland property and the adjacent intertidal land.

While the property dispute was being heard in court last June, Nordic bought the Eckrotes’ property and then conveyed it to the city with the stipulation that the city give the company an easement on the property to lay its pipes. That easement also gives the company other privileges over the property, like the option to construct a pumphouse on the site.

The city has said it intends to place its own conservation easement on the entire property, including the intertidal area. In August 2021, before Murray had  ruled in the ownership lawsuit, the city condemned the intertidal parcel by eminent domain.

The city claimed the move was necessary to bring the purchase and sale agreement among the city, Nordic and the Belfast Water District (which was drafted in 2018) to a close. It also said the property would be used as a public park and extend the Little River Walking Trail across the property and down to the bay.

Mabee and Grace, along with other interested parties, brought a lawsuit against the city, claiming the eminent domain action was unconstitutional and could not alter or terminate the existing conservation easement, held by the Friends of Harriet L. Hartley, without a court order.

Since Murray ruled against Mabee and Grace in the ownership lawsuit and found that the conservation easement held by the Friends group was not valid, Frey’s office withdrew its claims in the eminent domain lawsuit, with the stipulation that if Murray’s decision were overturned on appeal the city must seek a court order to alter or terminate the Friends’ conservation easement and the AG’s Office may intervene again.

City attorney Kristin Collins told The Republican Journal Feb. 25 she is confident that Murray’s ownership decision will not be overturned on appeal and because of Murray’s ruling there is no live issue for the AG’s Office to be concerned about. “It can’t enforce the statute over a conservation easement that doesn’t legally exist.”

The Friends issued a public statement Feb. 18 that the agreement between the attorney general, the city and Nordic affirms its position that an eminent domain action cannot alter or terminate a conservation easement.

The group asserts that its conservation easement over that intertidal land prevents Nordic from developing on it. “Ownership of the mudflats and the extent of that easement are still in the courts,” the statement said.

Also on Feb. 18, Nordic announced that it will move forward with the optional purchase and sale agreement  with the Belfast Water District and the city now that the property dispute has been decided.

“… Nordic sees a clear path going forward and has decided to exercise the last land purchase option agreement,” it said in a statement on its Facebook page..

The Water District will move into the old Seaport Family Practice building at 41 Wight St., according to Superintendent Keith Pooler. It will build a garage on the one-acre lot to store tools, repair supplies and smaller vehicles.

The Water District will buy some land from the city near the Public Works complex on Crocker Road to build a larger garage and have yard space for bigger equipment and repair supplies, he said.

Nordic is taking its time moving forward with the now fully permitted project, it said in its statement. It wants to maintain its good record by making sure it is fully satisfied with all aspects of the construction plan. “Nordic aims to make important announcements on next steps later in 2022,” the company said in the statement.

In a Feb. 18 press release the city said it looks forward to solidifying plans for the Little River Trail and the waterfront parcel it acquired from Nordic. It intends to protect the area into the future.

“I very much appreciate the AG’s involvement, and their decision to dismiss,” Mayor Eric Sanders said in the Nordic press release. “I look forward, as I am sure the Belfast Citizens and Water District do, to the day when Nordic is actually building and developing the Property, and the City of Belfast is enjoying this wonderful gift of an oceanfront park tied to our trail system.”

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