The Belfast side of Little River estuary at low tide, with the former home of Harriet Hartley visible at left. Nordic Aquafarms has proposed to run water pipes under the mudflats. (Photo by Ethan Andrews)
The Belfast side of Little River estuary at low tide, with the former home of Harriet Hartley visible at left. Nordic Aquafarms has proposed to run water pipes under the mudflats. (Photo by Ethan Andrews)
At the end of April, Penobscot Bay advocate Ron Huber posted a cryptic message on Facebook: “Looks like Nordic Aquafarms is toast. Next?”

Nordic Aquafarms had just come off its best public relations moment in the 15 months since going public with plans to build a $500 million land-based salmon farm in Belfast. An information session at the University of Maine Hutchinson Center a month earlier was dominated by supporters of the project for the first time in more than a year. If ever there was a time that Nordic did not appear to be “toast,” it was at the end of April.

On May 1, opponents dropped a bombshell trove of land records and testimonials that suggest Huber might have been right. But a representative of Nordic says nothing has changed; the salmon farm is moving ahead as planned.

Nordic responded to the “rumors” started by Huber with a post on its own Facebook page that included a letter to Upstream Watch, a group that opposes the salmon farm, from Carol DiBello, submerged lands coordinator for the state Bureau of Parks and Lands. The bureau is reviewing Nordic’s application to lay three pipes on the floor of Penobscot Bay that would carry water to and from the salmon farm. Upsteam Watch and other opponents believe the company doesn’t have the required land rights for the upland and intertidal zone. DiBello’s letter, at first glance, appeared to say otherwise:

“The Bureau, in consultation with the Attorney General’s office, has determined that the applicant has provided sufficient title information and project plans for the Bureau to continue processing the application,” she wrote.

The letter continued with a caveat. If the proposal is approved, DiBello said, Nordic would need to submit an easement deed across the adjacent upland property, which belongs to Janet and Richard Eckrote, “including to the mean low-water mark.”

Nordic’s initial application included some supporting materials for its land claims and made piecemeal additions at the bureau’s request. But Upstream Watch and other opponents challenged the documentation, saying it was sloppy, and multinational companies that have $500 million for a project don’t do sloppy work by accident. Nordic, they said, was hiding the fact that the Eckrotes don’t own the land in the intertidal zone.

The May 1 submission to the bureau came with receipts to prove it.

The package, from Kim Ervin Tucker, representing Upstream Watch and Maine Lobstering Union, included a title chain showing that the Eckrotes’ property and two others to the south were once a single lot owned by Harriet Hartley, who lived, or summered, in the first waterfront house on the Belfast side of Little River bridge. Hartley split the land in thirds and sold off the two lots to the north, including what is now the Eckrote property, in 1946, but only to the high-water mark. As confirmation of this finding, Ervin Tucker included a letter from Rockport surveyor Donald Richards, who co-authored the definitive 1995 Maine Law Review article “Maine Principles of Ownership Along Water Bodies.”

Because of the “very specific and clear language used in that deed of conveyance and subsequent conveyances,” Richards wrote, “it must be concluded that it was her intension to retain the intertidal land between the land [now owned by the Eckrotes] and the bay.”

“As I traced the record title back to discern who owned the shore and the flats it became obvious that they belong to Jeffrey R. Mabee and Judith B. Grace.” They bought Harriet Hartley’s former house in 1991.

Richards was saying that Mabee and Grace owned not only the .9 acre shown on Belfast’s tax maps and the intertidal zone in front of their house but also the intertidal zone of their two neighbors to the north, including the Eckrotes.

The three properties sit in the estuary of Little River, which has been dumping mud into the bay since long before the colonial ordinances under which Maine was parceled into private lots. Along parts of the coast, the intertidal zone might be no more than a 12-inch vertical band on a rock face. But here, parts of the mudflats spread out more than a hundred feet at low tide.

Harriet Hartley didn’t specify why she held onto the mudflats when she sold the upland property in 1946 — the deed doesn’t even mention the intertidal zone. But Paul Bernacki, who did the initial research on the property records, has a theory. From his research, he believes Hartley was part of the society of Methodists who came up from Boston, New York and Philadelphia and spent summers racing sailboats and swimming in Penobscot Bay.

“Was she an environmentalist?” he said. “I don’t know. She could have just been a wealthy person who was protecting her property and the views from her house.”

Bernacki knows the area from doing erosion control work for a number of property owners across the cove in Northport. “It’s just so incredibly beautiful,” he said. “Does anybody need any more reason to protect their investment from neighbors from doing things they don’t want them to do?”

Ervin Tucker, in the submission to Bureau of Parks and Lands, noted that Hartley also placed a covenant on the upland of what is now the Eckrotes’ property prohibiting commercial development. The group believes that Nordic’s pipes, in addition to trespassing on the neighbors’ mudflats, would violate the upland covenant. Mabee and Grace have since given a conservation easement for the full length of the intertidal zone to Upstream Watch.

On May 2, the Bureau of Parks and Lands reversed its earlier finding that Nordic’s application had sufficient evidence of title, right and interest along the pipe route. In an email to Nordic’s attorney Joanna Tourangeau of Drummond Woodsum, DiBello gave the company until May 16 to submit “any information you have regarding this issue, such as title searches, title opinions or surveys of the property that would help to establish the Eckrotes’ interest in the intertidal land.”

Ervin Tucker took DiBello’s request to say, in effect: prove it. Prove that the Eckrotes own the mudflats in between their home and the bay.

An environmental attorney, who was involved with compensation efforts after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 and a successful campaign to block a large propane storage facility in Searsport in 2012, Ervin Tucker throws off an intensity that tends to make everyone else in the room look sluggish and noncommittal. In 2015, while representing several groups opposed to a major dredging project in Searsport, she described a “calamity of turbidity” from the dredging that would sink the local fishing industry. But as she delivered what might become the punchline of the salmon farm that never was, she might have been sitting on a beach somewhere.

“Good luck,” she said. “They haven’t owned it since 1946.”

Marianne Naess, commercial director for Nordic Aquafarms, speaking on May 6, sounded equally confident, if somewhat less relaxed, that nothing has changed for the salmon farm.

“We are submitting the required information. We are confident that we can move forward,” she said. Naess said Nordic has all the rights, information and documentation that the company needs.

“I guess they’re claiming they own the land and they put a conservation easement on it and of course that will be disputed when they claim a neighbor’s land,” she said, adding that she wished Mabee and Grace hadn’t immediately given the conservation easement to Upstream Watch. “It would have been nice if they talked to us first. We have an open-door policy.”