This waterfront spot on Penobscot Bay is where Nordic Aquafarms would like to bury its intake and outfall pipes. Credit: Abigail Curtis | BDN

Nordic Aquafarms this week took a significant step forward in its plans to build a $500 million land-based salmon farm in Belfast.

The company has received a preliminary OK from the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands on its bid to install buried water intake and discharge pipes on submerged lands in Penobscot Bay.

The application process for this permit has not been without bumps, however. Project opponents, including the groups Upstream Watch and the Maine Lobstering Union, have argued that the easement Nordic obtained to cross intertidal land to get to the bay is invalid.

This is in large part because they believe a 1946 deed proves that Richard and Janet Eckrote, who are giving the company an easement to get to the bay, do not own the intertidal zone adjacent to their property.

But the Maine agency is not the right body to determine whether Nordic Aquafarms has sufficient right, title and interest to cross the land, Director Andrew R. Cutko wrote in his preliminary findings, which were released on Tuesday.

“The Bureau acknowledges that there are competing claims of title to the intertidal land in front of the Eckrotes’ property,” he wrote. “The Bureau, however, lacks the authority to resolve competing title claims; resolution of such claims is a function of the courts.”

The court may get a chance to weigh in on the matter. According to the Republican Journal, Northport Avenue landowners Jeffrey Mabee and Judith Grace, who believe they are the rightful owners of the intertidal zone, on Monday filed a lawsuit against Nordic, Janet Eckrote, Richard Eckrote and the unknown heirs of Genevieve Hargrove and/or Harriet “A.” Hartley and/or Harriet “L.” Hartley.

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Harriet Hartley was the landowner who in 1946 sold a portion of her waterfront property but retained the intertidal land for herself, according to Kim Ervin Tucker, attorney for Upstream Watch and the Maine Lobstering Union.

Mabee and Grace, who also have put the intertidal zone in a conservation easement held by Upstream Watch, want to prevent any of the defendants from claiming rights to, using or giving access to the disputed property, according to the Republican Journal.

Nordic’s own legal and surveying experts have said that the 1946 deed is not as cut-and-dried as opponents think or that Hartley meant to keep the intertidal zone for her own use.

Another challenge to Nordic’s submerged lands permit application was much less Byzantine than the dispute over right, title and interest. Cutko wrote in his findings that the bureau also received several comments from people who asserted that the application was not complete for processing because the site plan that Nordic submitted with its application did not bear a registered surveyor’s seal.

He wrote that while the bureau’s rules require the applicant to submit a detailed site plan, they do not, “as a matter of course, require that an applicant submit a plan bearing a registered surveyor’s seal. As such … the Bureau did not request that the applicant submit a site plan stamped by a registered surveyor.”

Nordic’s plan calls for the placement of three pipes — one 36-inch water discharge pipe that would extend 2,800 feet, or more than half a mile, seaward of the mean low-water mark, and two 30-inch water intake pipes that would be placed just more than a mile seaward of the mean low-water mark.

The pipes would be placed approximately one foot apart and buried to a depth of five feet in the intertidal zone, covered with five feet of riprap material to a depth of roughly 30 feet at low tide, according to the bureau’s preliminary findings and decision on the lease. The company would like to lease a 40-foot-wide corridor of submerged lands for its three pipes.

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An estimated 4,000 to 8,000 cubic yards of excavated material from the pipe burial would be disposed of at an upland site, the document said. The higher amount, 8,000 cubic yards, is roughly equal to the volume of two and a half Olympic swimming pools.

Nordic altered the proposed location of the pipes from its original submission in response to comments submitted by shorefront property owners regarding the crossing of intertidal land and littoral zones, according to the bureau.

The preliminary decision will become permanent after the bureau receives a recorded easement that conveys rights to the upland, including the intertidal land, that Nordic is proposing to use to place its pipes, Cutko wrote. The company will need to provide a recorded easement to the bureau within 30 days of getting all of its necessary permits and approvals for the project.