Nordic Aquafarms this week purchased property near the Little River from the Belfast Water District. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

BELFAST, Maine — Four years after Nordic Aquafarms announced its intentions to build a $500 million land-based salmon farm in Belfast, the company this week has purchased the parcel of land where the facility will be constructed.

Construction could begin in eight or nine months.

The closing of the real estate deal with the Belfast Water District is a significant step forward for the company, whose project was met from the beginning by sharp scrutiny and a barrage of civil lawsuits brought by opponents.

“We have completed the purchase of all our properties in Belfast,” Marianne Naess, executive vice president commercial for the Norwegian company, said recently. “Things are moving in the right direction for Nordic, I would say.”  

According to Nordic, the company has purchased 54 acres of land off U.S. Route 1, close to the Little River and the two reservoirs the city once used as its water source. The Belfast Water District will vacate its offices in the vintage brick pump house on the Little River and move to the former home of Seaport Family Practice on Wight Street.

“This is a beautiful spot,” Keith Pooler, the superintendent of the quasi-municipal public utility, said of the site by the Little River. “But the customers are paying for the maintenance of the reservoir and the dam that goes along with this, and water that hasn’t been used for over 40 years now and never will be again.”

He said that the original purchase price was $1.059 million, but over the course of the last four years since the deal was originally struck, other agreements have been made between Nordic Aquafarms and the Belfast Water District which means the district expected to receive more than that sum at the closing.

Additionally, Nordic has agreed to purchase at least 100 million gallons of water a year from the Belfast Water District for a minimum of six years. That will amount to a minimum of $287,000, money the district plans to use to improve the city’s water infrastructure, some of which is well over 100 years old, Pooler said.

“It’s a relief for me,” he said of the closing. “I think it’s a real step forward for the future of the customers of Belfast Water. It’s exciting to work on getting new office space and working space for the district. And it’s also exciting to see Nordic be able to move forward hopefully with their project and bring jobs and tax money to Belfast.”

Now that the Belfast Water District has sold its Little River land to Nordic Aquafarms, the utility will move its offices from the photogenic brick pumphouse off Route 1 to a building on Wight Street. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

After the deal went through, the Belfast City Council moved to follow through on a promise to contribute $100,000 to the land’s purchase price in order to permanently secure the Little River trail system for the city. Councilors unanimously voted Tuesday night to take this action.

“I think it’s high time,” City Councilor Neal Harkness said this week of the land transfer. “We’re talking about the water district getting enough money from Nordic to upgrade a system that’s way out of date … We keep hearing from the opponents, ‘Where is the public benefit?’ I would say upgrading the water system without having to raise rates is a big benefit to the public.”

But opponents do not agree.

Five separate legal actions intended to slow down or stop Nordic have all been ruled in favor of the company. But lawyers for the opponents are filing briefs to appeal those rulings, including the October decision by Judge Robert Murray that decided the ownership of a disputed mudflat, according to Andy Stevenson, the secretary of the Friends of Harriet L. Hartley Conservation Area.

Although Murray found in favor of Nordic Aquafarms, opponents could still win on appeal, Stevenson said.

“I was surprised that both the water district and Nordic want to finalize this [land] deal when the ability of Nordic to actually build their plant still rests on a final decision on the ownership of the intertidal zone,” Stevenson said. “Because if they cannot succeed in acquiring access to that zone, there’s really no way they can bring that plant online.”

Pooler said that the water district does not see the land transfer as a risk, but rather as an opportunity for its customers.

For Naess, the fact that Nordic Aquafarms has received all its permits and also prevailed in the court cases carries a lot of weight.  

“I think as long as we’ve gotten the permits, that’s kind of proven that we are a viable project, like it or not,” she said. “For us, the most important thing is to clear the path to build.”

That won’t be immediate. The company still needs to complete engineering and planning for the facility, Naess said, and anticipates it will take at least eight or nine months before construction can start.

“We are moving forward,” she said.

Those opposed are too, Stevenson said, at least regarding the legal appeals process.

“I think that it’s no secret that the opponents — Upstream Watch, Harriet L. Hartley, Jeffrey [Mabee] and Judith [Grace], the Maine Lobstering Union — are all exercising whatever rights and opportunities they have under the law to prevent this factory from being constructed,” he said.