Credit: Nordic Aquafarms

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection decided Thursday that Nordic Aquafarms’ pending permit applications are complete for processing, despite the efforts of the land-based fish farm opponents to have the state summarily throw out at least one application.

Last month, an attorney for Upstream Watch and the Maine Lobstering Union, groups that oppose the $500 million fish farm, which would be built at the mouth of the Little River in Belfast, argued that Nordic did not have a valid easement to get to and from Penobscot Bay with its intake and discharge pipes.

Among other points, attorney Kim Ervin Tucker told state regulators that Nordic did not have title, right and interest to apply for a submerged lands lease to get to the water because Janet and Richard Eckrote, the people whose land the pipes would cross, did not actually own the intertidal zone adjacent to their property.

But when state experts reviewed material submitted by both Nordic and the company’s opposition, including a 1946 land sale agreement, they determined that the DEP is not the right body to make that determination.

“The TRI provision cannot, however, be interpreted as compelling the department to perform an exacting legal analysis of competing ownership claims to determine the ultimate ownership of a property,” Kevin Martin, a compliance and procedures specialist with the DEP, wrote in a letter to Nordic’s attorney. “That ultimate conclusion can only be made by a court.”

But even though the state can’t make the final determination of who owns the intertidal zone, the agency can decide whether Nordic’s permit application meets the threshold to be accepted for review.

It did, Martin wrote, saying that the deeds and other submissions, including the company’s option to purchase an easement over the Eckrote property and the succession of deeds in the Eckrote chain of title, demonstrated sufficient title, right and interest for the department to process and take action on the pending applications.

If a court does decide the property dispute in a way that would affect Nordic’s interest in the proposed project lands while the applications are being processed, the Maine DEP can revisit the issue and return the application if appropriate, Martin said.

Now that the DEP has accepted the application for review, the next step will be determining if a license can be issued. Martin wrote that the Maine Board of Environmental Protection may set deadlines for a decision at its next regular meeting, which is scheduled for 9 a.m. June 20 in Augusta.

Ervin Tucker said Friday that the DEP’s decision was frustrating and disappointing, but not surprising. She said she has spent many hours perusing deeds, surveys and other documents and strongly believes that Jeffrey Mabee and Judith Grace own the intertidal zone, not the Eckrotes.

Mabee and Grace do not want the pipes crossing their property and will now need to go to court to prove their case. Ervin Tucker, who said she has been working pro bono for Upstream Watch and the Maine Lobstering Union, cannot represent the couple, too, and said they will be looking at doing an online fundraiser to obtain money for a property lawyer.

“Time is going to be wasted. Countless amounts of resources will be squandered, looking at something that will never happen because they just don’t have the legal right to do what they have to do,” Ervin Tucker said, adding that she and opponents will not give up. “I swear to you, with my dying breath, I’m going to keep them from doing this. It’s that important.”

Marianne Naess, the commercial director for Nordic Aquafarms, said Friday that with the DEP’s decision to accept the application, the company has reached an important milestone. It also submitted its permit application to the Belfast Planning Board this week and will present information to the board and to the public about the application at 6 p.m. Wednesday, June 26 at the University of Maine’s Hutchinson Center.

“We are looking forward to the project now being reviewed on its merits by the Board of Environmental Protection and the planning board in the city of Belfast,” she wrote in a media release, adding that the permit applications cover the entire project, including the first phase and future expansions of the facility. “This provides long-term predictability for the company, the authorities and the public. It also demonstrates a long-term commitment to the community.”