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Belfast gave land to a controversial fish farm by eminent domain. Now Maine's attorney general is stepping in

Courtesy Nordic Aquafarms
via Bangor Daily News

Maine's Attorney General is intervening in an eminent domain case on the Midcoast that has spawned a legal battle between the City of Belfast and an aquaculture farm and private landowners and conservation groups.

In August the City of Belfast took by eminent domain a strip of intertidal property needed by Nordic Aquafarms to install a seawater intake and discharge system for its salmon farm to be built inland near the shores of Penobscot Bay. After taking the land, the City created its own easement and gave it to Nordic.

But opponents of the project say that the owners of the intertidal property had placed a conservation easement on the land to protect it from development, per the wishes of the previous owner, and that the land should not have been taken. Waldo County Superior Court Justice Robert Murray has yet to make a ruling on who actually owns the intertidal property. Amy Grant of Upstream Watch, one of the parties claiming ownership, says the city of Belfast acted too quickly.

"We're still awaiting the decision from Justice Murray on who actually owns this land. Rather than wait for him to issue his decision they went around him and tried to preempt him," Grant says. "It's bad for the city, they've opened a can of worms here."

This summer the city asked the state Attorney General's office to allow it to terminate the conservation easement without court approval and allow Nordic to proceed with its plans. In a letter to the city earlier this week Assistant Attorney General Lauren Parker rejected that request, as the city's easement to Nordic Aquafarms allows commercial and industrial uses prohibited by the conservation easement. Belfast city Attorney Kristin Collins disagrees and believes the city's plans for the property respect conservation values.

"We feel like there's no better way to protect those values than to put a city park on it," Collins says. "The fact that there will be a pipeline 10 to 20 feet below ground will not change the conservation value of that property as long as we have other protections in place. That's why we think a court would approve it."

On Thursday Attorney General Aaron Frey made a motion to intervene in the complaint against the city stating that the court alone has the power to terminate a conservation easement and that the Attorney General must be party to that action. Frey asked the court to prohibit the city of Belfast from terminating, amending or condemning the landowners' conservation easement and declare that easement valid until Justice Murray makes his ruling regarding ownership of the contested land.

Belfast city Attorney Collins says that she welcomes Attorney General Frey's intervention, adding it will give all of the parties involved a more official way to resolve the issue.