A civil trial revolving around ownership of these tidal flats in Belfast wrapped up last week, but it will be weeks, at least, before a decision is made. The ownership of the flats matters because it's where Nordic Aquafarms would like to place its intake and outfall pipes to get to and from Penobscot Bay. Credit: Abigail Curtis / BDN

BELFAST, Maine — The civil trial to determine who owns the intertidal land that is critical to Nordic Aquafarms’ bid to build a $500 million land-based fish farm in Belfast wrapped up Friday, but the parties will need to wait to learn which side prevailed.

In fact, the lawyers will not file their closing arguments until Thursday, July 15. After that, they will have 10 days to craft a response to the other side’s arguments, and then will need to wait while Waldo County Superior Court Justice Robert Murray deliberates before making his judgement.

In the right, title and interest trial, plaintiffs Jeffrey Mabee, Judith Grace and Friends of the Harriet L. Hartley Conservation Area tried to show that defendants Nordic Aquafarms and Richard and Janet Eckrote don’t have the right to access the intertidal zone next to the Eckrotes’ house on Northport Avenue.

The Eckrotes say they do, and granted an easement to Nordic to cross it, but Mabee and Grace maintain 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 necessary before Nordic Aquafarms can move forward with its land-based salmon farm on the inland side of U.S.  Route 1.

The three-day trial, which included a field trip to the flats, appears to hinge on which surveyor Murray will find more persuasive — Donald Richards, who testified on behalf of the plaintiffs, and Jim Dorsky, who testified on behalf of the defendants.  

Richards said that old deeds make it very clear that landowner Harriet L. Hartley, who began selling parcels of her waterfront property in 1946, intended to keep the intertidal land for her own use. That includes the tidal flats in front of the Eckrotes’ property, as well as in front of the properties of neighboring landowners Donald and Wendy Schweikert and Lyndon Morgan.

“She retained all her flats,” Richards said last Tuesday.

He believed that Hartley’s retained right to the tidal flats was conveyed in the property that is now owned by Mabee and Grace.

But Dorsky came to a different conclusion. At points in his research he had been uncertain of ownership, but ultimately found that “along high water,” a phrase used in the 1946 deed from Hartley to Fred Poor, Janet Eckrote’s grandfather, meant that the tidal flats were included in the property transaction.

“In my opinion, if it says ‘along high water of Penobscot Bay,’ that is a call to the bay. And the flats are not excluded at all,” Dorsky said.

On Thursday, the trial’s final day, Janet Eckrote took to the stand to describe how her family began going to the waterfront property in 1885 — long before her grandfather purchased it from Hartley. For her family, the tidal flats in front of their cabin were an integral part of their property. They swam and kayaked there when the water was high and played and had fires on the beach when it wasn’t.

“It was your understanding that you owned the intertidal zone,” her attorney, Andre Duchette of Portland, asked her.

“Yes,” she replied, adding that no one had ever challenged her family’s right to it until 2019, when the lawsuit was filed.  

Both the defendants and the plaintiffs said after the trial that they felt very optimistic about their chances.

Kim Ervin Tucker, the attorney for Mabee and Grace, told the Republican Journal last week that the lawsuit was brought to defend her clients’ ownership rights. But it also was an effort to “preserve this fragile estuary from industrialization by people from away and a foreign corporation who have shown no respect for our environment or the property rights of these long-time Belfast residents,” she said.

Marianne Naess, of Nordic Aquafarms, said that she and others from the company are “very pleased” with the trial process so far.

“The court appears to be focusing on the real issue here — whether the plaintiffs have the right to dictate what happens on the intertidal zone in front of their neighbors’ land,” she said. “Nordic is confident that its position is supported not only by common sense, but by the decisions of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.”