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

BELFAST, Maine — Nearly two years after the first legal volleys were lobbed in the fight to determine whether Nordic Aquafarms has a clear right of way across a Belfast mudflat, the parties will finally have their day in court.

Or several days, to be precise.

The civil right, title and interest lawsuit filed by Jeffrey Mabee, Judith Grace and Friends of the Harriet L. Hartley Conservation Area against defendants Nordic Aquafarms and Janet and Richard Eckrote is scheduled to begin at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday at Waldo County Superior Court in Belfast and may not finish until June 25.

At dispute is who actually owns the sliver of intertidal zone next to the Eckrotes’ house on Northport Avenue. The Eckrotes say they do, but Mabee and Grace dispute that, maintaining that a 1946 deed shows that 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 $500 million land-based salmon farm the company wants to build on the inland side of U.S. Route 1.

Marianne Naess of Nordic Aquafarms said Friday that company officials are looking forward to resolving the ownership matter.

“Nordic’s position is that it’s about the title issue and only the title issue. The opponents are trying to make it into everything else,” she said. “We have full confidence that we have a strong case.”

More than two years ago, the Eckrotes 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. Although the ownership of the property is contested, Mabee and Grace placed the intertidal zone under a conservation easement in April 2019 to protect it from development.

A property tax map sketch that was included in the lawsuit filed recently in federal court against Nordic Aquafarms. Credit: Courtesy of United States District Court

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 her own use, as well as the intertidal land bordering other parcels she sold.

Andy Stevenson, the secretary of the Friends of the Harriet L. Hartley Conservation Area, said that he believes the plaintiffs have a very strong argument in favor of Mabee and Grace’s ownership of the intertidal zone.

“The underlying question is essentially when did Harriet L. Hartley sell off each of her various properties, which are now the four properties along the shoreline, and what did she include in each of those sales,” he said. “Justice [Robert] Murray will decide.”

The first day of the trial will feature a low-tide field trip to the intertidal zone for the judge, the various attorneys and two land surveyors whose surveys are critical to the competing claims of ownership, Stevenson said.

“They are actually going to go down to the site and walk the flats,” he said.

The bench trial is Phase 1 in unraveling the title issues to the intertidal zone that stemmed from the civil lawsuit. After Murray makes a judgement, Phase 2 will begin, which will include deciding all of the various tort claims the parties have asserted.

A separate case about ownership of the land, which was filed in U.S. District Court by Mabee and Grace against the Eckrotes, is stayed until the resolution of the Phase 1 in Waldo County Superior Court.

Naess said that she is eager to get to the other side of the legal battle.

“We’re looking forward to finally getting through the trial and being able to move forward,” she said. “It’s pretty clear that this is about stopping Nordic. That’s what was said during the depositions. This is only about stopping Nordic.”  

For his part, Stevenson said he is looking forward to the trial.

“I think we have a very strong case, and I’m really looking forward to hearing the arguments on both sides,” he said. “So we can see what, finally, Nordic feels is their strongest case.”

Correction: An earlier version of this report transposed the names of two plaintiffs.

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