Maine Attorney General dismisses complaint against City of Belfast

Sat, 02/19/2022 - 11:15am

    BELFAST — In a Feb. 18 news release, the City of Belfast said that Maine’s Office of Attorney General had dismissed its claim against the city concerning waterfront property and the Nordic Aquafarms project.Project opponents issued their own response on the same day, stating that ownership of the mudflats are still in the courts. 

    Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey had filed a complaint Dec. 23 against the City of Belfast and intervenor-defendant Nordic Aquafarms, Inc., saying a privately held conservation easement that spans an intertidal zone on the shores of Penobscot Bay remains valid. Belfast and Nordic have asserted the opposite.

    “In August of 2021, the City of Belfast acquired ownership of the waterfront property under which Nordic Aquafarms will place pipes serving its planned aquaculture facility,” wrote City Manager Erin Herbig, in the news release issued Friday.

    “The City plans to use this property as a public recreational area bridging a connection between the well-loved Little River trail and Belfast Bay,” she wrote. “Opponents to Nordic’s project have attempted to block it by asserting that they own title to the intertidal area of this crucial piece of property, or that they hold a conservation easement over it.  The Waldo Superior Court, after trial, has rejected both arguments.  The challengers have appealed the Superior Court’s decision to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

    “In a separate court action, opponents asserted that the City’s acquisition and/or use of the intertidal area required approval by the court due to the claimed conservation easement.  The Attorney General then intervened in that case, as it has statutory oversight over the conservation easement laws. 

    “The City is now pleased to report that all parties to these cases, including the Attorney General, have agreed that the Attorney General’s claim should be dismissed.  With the Superior Court’s holding that the conservation easement does not legally exist – and the high likelihood that this holding will be upheld on appeal – there is no present need for the Attorney General’s involvement.

    “The dismissal of this claim, along with the Superior Court’s holding, help clear the way for a series of transactions that will benefit the City and its residents.  Nordic will be able to acquire the Water District property and begin building its facility.  The Water District will be able to acquire property for its new headquarters.  And last but not lease, the City will acquire the Little River Trail and be able to move forward with its plans for the oceanfront parcel.  Speaking of this development, Mayor Eric Sanders said, “I very much appreciate the AG’s involvement, and their decision to dismiss.  I look forward, as I am sure the Belfast Citizens and Water District do, to the day when Nordic is actually building and developing the Property, and the City of Belfast is enjoying this wonderful gift of an oceanfront park tied to our trail system.”

    “The City Council looks forward to meeting in the coming months to solidify plans for these recreational areas and to ensure that they are protected for generations of Belfast residents and visitors to come.”

    In another news release circulated Feb. 18, the opponents of the Nordic Aquafarms, Inc., project offered its response. Andrew Stevenson, Press Secretary for the Friends of Harriet L. Hartley Conservation Area, wrote:

    “Earlier today the City of Belfast acknowledged that it cannot use its powers of eminent domain to sidestep the terms of an existing conservation easement. The City agreed to the Attorney General’s (AG) stipulation that the only way to amend or terminate a conservation easement is through the state’s conservation easement statute. Once that was accepted, the AG dropped a second claim against the City and Belfast dropped a counterclaim. Assistant Attorney General Scott Boak filed the agreements in Waldo County Superior Court.

    “The City’s failed legal maneuver was part of its campaign to aid Nordic Aquafarms, Inc.  push through its plans for a 33,000 metric ton fish-raising facility in Belfast. Opponents to the Nordic plan assert that their conservation easement on a swath of intertidal mudflats prevents Nordic from realizing its dream. Ownership of the mudflats and the extent of that easement are still in the courts.

    “It is ironic that the City’s attorneys were told in July 2021 that the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) would not support a premature move to circumvent the conservation easement process, yet the city council chose to ignore that warning. The recent agreement finally puts to rest the City Council actions to push forward a doomed claim of eminent domain.”