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Maine Supreme Court ruling deals potential blow to Belfast fish farm

A civil trial revolving around ownership of these tidal flats in Belfast wrapped up last week, but it will be weeks, at least, before a decision is made. The ownership of the flats matters because it's where Nordic Aquafarms would like to place its intake and outfall pipes to get to and from Penobscot Bay.
Abigail Curtis
Maine’s Supreme Judicial Court ruled on Feb. 16, 2023, that the intertidal zone for a property in Belfast belongs to landowners who oppose a large fish farm that would be built nearby. The ruling was a blow against Nordic Aquafarms, which had planned to route water intake and outfall pipes for the proposed facility through the tidal flats.

Maine's highest court sided with opponents of a proposed Belfast fish farm Thursday in a case over access to intertidal lands.

The company Nordic Aquafarms had negotiated an agreement with the owners of a waterfront parcel in Belfast, Richard and Janet Eckrote, to run underground pipes from a massive, planned fish farm to Penobscot Bay. The estimated $500 million project has been in the works for several years and has already received state permits. But neighbors who oppose the fish farm – which would raise Atlantic salmon in tanks in a land-based facility – claimed that they owned the intertidal zone where the intake and outtake pipes would pass through. With their supporters, landowners Jeffrey Mabee and Judith Grace also argued that deed restrictions prohibited any business development on the adjacent land.

On Thursday, Maine's Supreme Judicial Court ruled against Nordic Aquafarms and said the deeds make clear that the intertidal zone belongs to the neighbors. The justices vacated a Superior Court ruling, once again raising questions about the future of the project proposed for a spot of land on the Little River about two miles from downtown Belfast.

Amy Grant, president of the group Upstream Watch whose members have been fighting Nordic’s proposal for several years, cheered the Law Court’s decision. Grant said the court also agreed that a conservation easement protects those intertidal lands. Those conservation easements were granted to a conservation group, Friends of the Harriet L. Hartley Conservation Area, in 2019.

"Yeah, we're pretty excited,” Grant said Thursday. “It's been a lot of ups and downs but it's how it all finishes that matters. We're not done. But we're going to take a small victory lap at this point."

Nordic said in statement that the company was reviewing the ruling.

“Nordic Aquafarms has always recognized this could be a possible outcome. At this juncture, Nordic will be taking the time to review the court’s decision and evaluate our options,” the company stated.

The project is strongly supported by the city of Belfast, however. The city used eminent domain to acquire the Eckrote property for a waterfront park and to secure Nordic’s access to Penobscot Bay. A separate court case on the city’s use of eminent domain was put on hold pending the ruling in the intertidal rights case before the Supreme Court. But multiple city officials said in statements on Thursday that they are confident the city will prevail in that case and that the project will move forward.

“The City of Belfast continues to support Nordic Aquafarms on this project,” Belfast Mayor Eric Sanders said in a statement. “I respect all court decisions as a rule, and certainly our use of eminent domain in this situation. I fully expect to be welcoming Nordic to Belfast as a new business.”

"It is our intention that the project will proceed as planned, with the understanding that there is still a pending challenge as to the use of eminent domain that remains to be resolved,” added City Attorney Kristin Collins. “We have every reason to believe that challenge will be resolved in the City's favor.”

But Grant with Upstream Watch said she believes that Thursday’s ruling merely strengthen their side in the case on eminent domain as well.

“This eminent domain fight was an uphill climb for the city anyway and now it’s vertical,” Grant said. “If they’re interested in their taxpayers, I don’t know how they can . . . proceed with this because it’s going to get very expensive.”