In this June 22, 2021, file photo, Waldo County Superior Court Justice Robert Murray, center, is flanked by the lawyers, surveyors and other interested parties who went on a field trip earlier this summer to a disputed intertidal property that is the subject of a civil lawsuit in Belfast. The City Council voted Thursday to seize access to land key to Nordic Aquafarms' planned salmon farm. Credit: Abigail Curtis / BDN

BELFAST, Maine — City councilors unanimously voted Thursday night to proceed with eminent domain action that will ensure that Nordic Aquafarms can cross a hotly contested strip of mudflat to get to Penobscot Bay.

The vote took place immediately after a public hearing that saw dozens of members of the public lambasting councilors for nearly two hours. People from Belfast and beyond criticized the move as governmental overreach, anti-democratic, environmentally unsound and biased towards a foreign corporation.

But councilors did not waver. City officials expect that the move will smooth the path for the Norwegian-owned aquaculture company to build a $500 million land-based salmon farm on the inland side of U.S. Route 1. Some spoke of the long permitting process since the company first announced its intentions three and a half years ago to build their project in Belfast.

“I do not believe that the civil servants at the Department of Environmental Protection and other agencies are incompetent or corrupt,” Councilor Neal Harkness said. “Every objection has been heard. The relevant issues have been addressed. The questions have been answered. We have moved beyond concern to obstruction.”

The action seeks to clear the contested deed on the property, allowing Nordic Aquafarms to bury its pipes in the intertidal zone and move forward on the project that’s projected to bring much new revenue into the city’s coffers. At a City Council meeting last week, City Attorney Bill Kelly laid out the reasons why the city could undertake such a controversial step.

Those include reaping the benefits of a 2018 agreement between the city, the Belfast Water District and Nordic Aquafarms that would provide the city with land used for recreation and the water district with a significant new revenue stream. By selling water to the aquaculture company, the water district — a quasi-municipal utility that operates independently of the city — would have enough money to replace antique infrastructure, bring a new well online and keep the costs to ratepayers at a minimum, Kelly explained.

Belfast officials also believe the salmon farm would bring tax revenue and new jobs to the city. But to finalize the agreement, there needs to be a closing between the water district, Nordic and the City regarding the sale of the water district’s land, Kelly said this week. For that to happen, Nordic requires a clear title to get its pipes back and forth to the bay.

The company had tried to do that by purchasing an easement from the owners of a waterfront property close to the proposed fish farm. But two years ago, Nordic’s opponents found information in a deed from 1946 that threw the ownership of the intertidal zone adjacent to that property into question.

That question has not yet been answered. It’s the subject of a prolonged, ongoing civil court battle, with plaintiffs Jeffrey Mabee, Judith Grace and Friends of the Harriet L. Hartley Conservation Area arguing in court that the family the city purchased the easement from was not the true owners and so did not have the right to grant Nordic Aquafarms an easement to cross the zone. Justice Robert Murray now is deliberating before making a decision.

Last month, there was a twist in the fish farm saga, after Nordic Aquafarms purchased the property then gave it to the city of Belfast for use as a waterfront park. But the gift had a condition: that the city get a permanent easement for Nordic Aquafarms to cross over the intertidal zone and get to the bay.

The city tried to do this by going to everyone who could claim rights to the intertidal zone and offering to purchase those rights. Although one person accepted the city’s offer, others did not. Mabee, Grace and the Friends of the Harriet L. Hartley Conservation Area refused it while making a counteroffer that Kelly described this week as “legal posturing for public consumption.”

Fish farm opponents do not believe the eminent domain action is the equivalent of checkmate in the battle over the farm. Many expressed their dismay over the eminent domain action, calling it both illegal and unethical. Kim Ervin Tucker, the attorney for Mabee, Grace and the Friends of the Harriet L. Hartley Conservation Area, said the city will be in a lawsuit “before the sun sets tomorrow.”

“It’s this Tammany Hall backroom scam that is basically being presented to the people of Belfast as a fait accompli,” Christopher Hyk of Belfast said to applause from those listening from the hallway and a conference room. “It is not. We’ll see you in court.”

Far more opponents than supporters shared their views during the public hearing. But some spoke in favor of the City Council and the Nordic Aquafarms project — if not always of the eminent domain action itself. 

“I’m extremely disappointed in the way the City Council and supporters have been abused and vilified,” Zafra Whitcomb of Belfast said. “I’m not necessarily opposed to this method. I’m not fond of it, but this has gone on way, way too long.”