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

The future of a costly Nordic Aquafarms project in Belfast is unclear after the Maine Supreme Judicial Court Thursday ruled against the company, giving rights to the intertidal zone back to landowners opposing the project.

Nordic Aquafarms intended to bury pipes for a $500 million land-based salmon farm in the disputed area. However, the new ruling strips them of the right to use the land, returning them to Jeffrey R. Mabee, Judith B.Grace and Friends of the Harriet L. Hartley Conservation Area.

It’s unclear what will happen to the project now that the company no longer has the land rights.

Jacqueline Cassida, a spokesperson for the company, said Nordic will be reviewing the decision and evaluating its options. However, city officials indicated in a statement that they are committed to seeing the project come together.

“I fully expect to be welcoming Nordic to Belfast as a new business,” Mayor Eric Sanders said.

The Friends of Harriet L. Hartley Conservation Area however said Thursday’s ruling is further protection for Penobscot Bay.

“Thank goodness justice has prevailed,” Friends President Sid Block said. “We are proud to have been part of a large group of citizens who believe that our environment is worth fighting for.”

An agreement in 2018 between Nordic and landowners Richard and Janet Eckrote had granted the company the right to use that land between Penobscot Bay. That was upheld in an Oct. 2021 decision by Superior Court Justice Robert Murray, who ruled that the Eckrotes were the rightful owners of the intertidal zone. Mabee, Grace, Friends and Upstream Watch subsequently appealed that decision. The supreme court decision overturns Murray’s ruling.

The decision determined that Mabee and Grace owned the intertidal land through deeds dating back to the 1940s. The two landowners had placed a conservation easement over the intertidal land in 2019, which they later assigned to Friends of the Harriet L. Hartley Conservation Area.

However, the Belfast City Council in 2021 voted to pursue eminent domain for the disputed parcel. Opponents of the project sued the city following the vote. That has remained in limbo while questions of the property rights remained in dispute. Nordic is now waiting on the outcome of the city’s eminent domain pursuit, which will help the company figure out how to move forward. Cassida said the company still believes the public will benefit from their project.

“It is our intention that the project will proceed as planned, with the understanding that there is still a pending challenge as to the use of eminent domain that remains to be resolved. We have every reason to believe that challenge will be resolved in the City’s favor,” explains City Attorney Kristin Collins.