BELFAST, Maine — The value of a mudflat could be more than anyone would think, according to a lawsuit filed by a Belfast couple embroiled in a land dispute over the intertidal zone adjacent to their property.
They’re asking the court to grant them special damages that could include as much as $1.2 million for the alleged loss of “value and marketability” for their waterfront property.
The couple, Jeffrey R. Mabee and Judith B. Grace, who own Little River Center at 290 Northport Ave., last week filed suit in U.S. District Court against their neighbors, Janet and Richard Eckrote.
At dispute is who actually owns the sliver of intertidal zone next to the Eckrotes’ house. The Eckrotes say they do, but Mabee and Grace have disputed that in two lawsuits — a civil suit filed in Waldo County Superior Court this summer and a new federal suit. They maintain they are the clear owners of the land.
Ownership of the mudflat is important because it’s where Nordic Aquafarms intends to bury pipes to funnel water to and from Penobscot Bay. Access to the bay is critical for the land-based salmon farm the company wants to build on the inland side of U.S. Route 1.
The attorney representing the Eckrotes in the first lawsuit said that she believes Mabee and Grace have a different target than her clients.
“This is a lawsuit that has everything to do with Nordic that Nordic’s not even named in,” Sarah Gilbert of Camden Law said of the federal suit.
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The Eckrotes have entered into a lease agreement with Nordic Aquafarms to allow the company to cross their property to access the bay. But Mabee and Grace would obstruct those plans if the court declares them the owner of the property, and have already put the intertidal zone into a conservation easement held by Upstream Watch, a Belfast-based nonprofit that opposes the fish farm.
According to the lawsuit, Mabee and Grace claim the 1946 deed from waterfront landowner Harriet L. Hartley to Fred R. Poor, Janet Eckrote’s grandfather, clearly shows that Hartley retained the intertidal land for herself. Hartley, whose property is now owned by Mabee and Grace, did that by inserting language indicating that the waterside boundary is “along high water of Penobscot Bay.”
Those boundaries are listed on various deeds written over the years, but a 2012 deed replaced it with erroneous language, according to plaintiffs. That recent deed says that the waterside boundary is “along said bay,” and not “along high water of Penobscot Bay,” the lawsuit said, alleging the new language adds up to an intentional concealment by the Eckrotes.
“What [the Eckrotes] have really done is tie up our client’s property,” Dana Strout of Rockport, one of the attorneys for Mabee and Grace. “They’ve slandered the property by saying that they own it when they clearly don’t … what the case is about is that they have claimed ownership over property they were never properly deeded. We want them to renounce that claim.”
But Gilbert, the Eckrotes’ attorney, said that she believes the case is about something else: money.
Prior to filing lawsuits against Eckrotes and Nordic Aquafarms, Mabee and Grace wanted to sell their property to Nordic for $1 million. But that didn’t happen, Gilbert said.
“This is about a disgruntled neighbor who lost a business deal,” she said. “It’s a basic title dispute. To assert our answer to their lawsuit is slanderous in some way is outrageous. There’s no other word for it. Now they are asking for more in this new lawsuit. It’s all about the money.”
The complaint, which was filed on Sept. 19 by Mabee and Grace’s attorneys, Strout and Kim Ervin Tucker, of Lincolnville, said that the Eckrotes allegedly false statements about the ownership of the land have caused the plaintiffs to incur “substantial special damages.” Those damages include litigation costs and the loss of value and marketability of the Mabee-Grace property, which is valued at a minimum of $700,000 and as much as $1.2 million.
According to Strout, the case seems complicated, but in some ways it is simple.
“It’s about getting clear title to land,” he said, adding that the Eckrotes have not corrected the mistake his clients believe they are making. “They have refused to renounce it. They’re claiming even more strongly that they own it now, and we had no choice other than to file a lawsuit to get title to our property.”
But Gilbert called the new suit filed by Mabee and Grace against her clients “disturbing.”
“The plaintiffs in this case know that the Eckrotes are just two people, with normal jobs and normal lives. They’re not rich by any means,” she said. “[The plaintiffs] real [issue] here is with Nordic, [but] they’re going after the little guy.”
The attorney speculated that through the federal suit, Mabee, Grace and their attorneys have an ulterior motive — to cause her clients “so much stress and heartache” that they will give up on their land lease deal altogether.
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