A map of southern Belfast showing the Eckrote lot in green. The land that once belonged to Harriet Hartley is bounded by a purple line. The general location of the disputed tidal flats is shown in red. (Map annotated by The Free Press, for illustration purposes only)
A map of southern Belfast showing the Eckrote lot in green. The land that once belonged to Harriet Hartley is bounded by a purple line. The general location of the disputed tidal flats is shown in red. (Map annotated by The Free Press, for illustration purposes only)
As Waldo County Superior Court Justice Robert Murray collects closing arguments in a high stakes lawsuit over the proposed $500 million land-based salmon farm in Belfast, city officials are taking steps to ensure that the developer, Nordic Aquafarms, prevails, regardless of the outcome in court.

On July 8, the City Council approved a cryptic set of actions that will give the city a new waterfront park on Route 1 in exchange for granting Nordic Aquafarms a perpetual easement for a buried pipeline across the property.

The pipeline is necessary to move water between the bay and the land-based salmon farm, however construction is on hold pending a verdict on the ownership of the intertidal mudflats adjacent to the property, which the pipeline would cross.

Until recently, the ownership question seemed to lie solely in the hands of the court, but the council’s actions last week, which aim to “clear alleged title defects,” could change that.

While the agreements approved by the council don’t show a clear path to cleaning up the vague aspects of the deed, they may put the city in a position to take the disputed land by eminent domain on behalf of Nordic Aquafarms.

The council approved the three measures after an executive session and without public discussion. City Councilor Mary Mortier read each article slowly and precisely. Mayor Eric Sanders signed the documents as the city’s official representative.

The first vote authorized a purchase and sale agreement between the city and Nordic Aquafarms for the 2.73-acre wedge of land, which lies between Route 1 and the bay. The property was recently owned by Janet and Richard Eckrote, who had granted Nordic an easement to cross the property with the pipeline. However, the easement relied on the now-contested claim that the Eckrotes own the mudflats next to their property. The language of the agreement suggests that the Eckrotes recently sold the property to Nordic Aquafarms. As of July 12, the Waldo County Registry of Deeds showed no online record of the property changing hands, and a representative of Nordic Aquafarms did not respond to a request for confirmation.

Additionally, the council authorized an attorney working on behalf of the city to make offers to several parties that have claimed ownership of the intertidal land, including the plaintiffs in the ongoing lawsuit, Jeffrey Mabee and Judith Grace, and Friends of Harriet L. Hartley Conservation Area, stewards of a conservation easement that covers the disputed section of the flats. The amounts to be offered are unknown.

Finally, the council approved offering $500 to each of the owners of six nearby properties to disarm a covenant in a 1946 deed that reserves the land “for residential purposes only, that no business for profit is to be conducted there unless agreed to by (the owner at the time) Harriet L. Hartley” or “her heirs or assigns.”

Opponents of the salmon farm believe that covenant alone should block Nordic’s underground pipeline, even if it turns out the Eckrotes own the intertidal land next to their upland lot.

An appraisal commissioned by the city valued the Eckrote property at $420,000 and the adjacent intertidal zone at $40,000. Additionally, it set the amount of $500 for the releases related to the “residential purposes” language.

In a May letter to the appraiser, Belfast City Attorney William Kelly wrote that the calculation of appraised values “must also be in a form that would serve to comply with the calculation of Maine statutory condemnation damages, as it is possible that negotiations and settlement offers to clear the title interests as described above may be rejected,” at which time the city “could elect, in its sole discretion, to proceed to a condemnation hearing.”

David Losee, an environmental lawyer working with the Nordic opposition group Upstream Watch, said before taking property by eminent domain, a government typically has to have made an offer to the landowner.

“Usually that offer is low and it has to be supported by an appraisal,” he said. “They get into negotiations and maybe it works out, maybe not. If it doesn’t work out, then the government can begin a procedure where the court determines the price and the property is transferred.

“On one hand,” Losee said, “it certainly does appear that there’s a sale contemplated, on the other hand, it may also be, at the same time, a precursor to an eminent domain proceeding.”

A press release from the city about the July 8 vote focused on the park and made no mention of the pipeline:

“These 2.75 acres with 500 feet along Route One and 325 feet of Penobscot Bay shore frontage will be a remarkable addition to City of Belfast’s parks, anchoring public waterfront access far into the future. The next closest public access for Belfast people is 1.25 miles away at Belfast City Park. For this kind and remarkable gift we will always be grateful.”

The note of thanks was followed by two paragraphs about needing to “clear alleged title defects” from the property, then closed on a cheerful note:

“As soon as that is accomplished, the city will be thrilled to permanently secure the 40 acres of walking trails along the Little River Reservoir and the Eckrote property for perpetual public use and enjoyment.”

When asked if the council’s actions were related to a potential eminent taking, City Councilor Mike Hurley said, “Not yet.” He declined to say more, and other city officials have either declined to speak about the actions because it is prohibited in the terms of the agreements, or they did not return calls from The Free Press.

Marianne Naess, executive vice president commercial for Nordic Aquafarms, referred to the statement from the city, and added that the agreements were “about the longstanding partnership with the people of Belfast that Nordic has had, and will have, in the future.”

“We are here to stay,” she wrote in an email. “Any contribution to preserving access to the ocean for the residents is aligned with Nordic’s sustainability focus.”