August 10, 2012

Judge upholds eviction of Portland lobster company

Three Sons Lobster and Fish loses its battle to remain on the Maine Wharf.

By Randy Billings rbillings@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND — Three Sons Lobster and Fish was rightfully evicted from its location on the deteriorating Maine Wharf, a U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge ruled Friday.

click image to enlarge

Red "danger" tape surrounds the entrance of Three Sons Lobster and Fish on Commercial Street today.

John Patriquin / Staff Photographer

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Stuart Norton, owner of the seafood business, had hoped that a last-minute bankruptcy filing would give him more time to find a new place to operate on Portland's waterfront.

But the judge called Norton's maneuver "inventive and far-fetched."

"Although it's been a frustrating experience, we're glad the judge has clarified that the landlord acted appropriately when he took possession of the property" on Thursday, said Dave Perkins, the attorney who represented Great Maine Wharf LLC. "Now, the landlord can deal with the structural and safety issues at that site."

Three Sons Lobster, along with two other Maine Wharf tenants, got eviction notices in October because the wharf's owner, Eric Cianchette, feared that a broken piling made it unsafe.

Chase Leavitt, a life raft and marine supply company, and Fresh Atlantic, a sea urchin processor, complied with the order.

With no other place to operate, Norton fought the eviction. He filed a legal challenge in Portland District Court, but agreed in April to leave by July 31.

As that deadline passed, Norton still couldn't find a new location to sell seafood wholesale and retail, and Three Sons Lobster stayed on the pier. On Monday, he was given 48 hours to move out or be locked out of his business at 72 Commercial St.

Seeking to prevent that, Norton filed for personal bankruptcy, believing it would protect him from being evicted. But on Thursday morning, police and representatives of Great Maine Wharf gave employees five minutes to leave Three Sons Lobster before they locked the doors and removed the signs.

In court, Perkins argued that Maine Wharf's lease was with Three Sons Lobster, not Norton, giving Cianchette the right to close the business. He also noted that the lease expired on Dec. 31, 2011.

Norton's attorney, Tim Mauser, tried to convince the judge that Norton and the business are the same entity, so the personal bankruptcy filing should protect the business. He cited previous leases, signed by Norton, in an attempt to make his case.

Judge James Haines Jr. called it "an inventive and far-fetched" claim, and said that even if he accepted it, it would not protect Norton from eviction because his lease had expired on Dec. 31 and he had agreed in court to leave by July 31.

"It's a bad argument, sir," Haines said.

Perkins requested a waiver from the seven-day waiting period required by state law to remove lobster tanks, lobsters and other property from the closed business. He said the wharf had "moved a foot" within the last 10 days.

"The buckling is right where the (lobster) tank is," Perkins said. "Within the seven days, we're fearful the pier is going to collapse."

Haines said Perkins would have to go to state court to get that waiver.

After Friday's hearing, Norton said he will work to remove his belongings -- including more than 30 crates of lobsters -- from the building.

He's not sure what the future holds for him and his eight employees.

"I'm kind of at a loss for words," Norton said. "Hopefully I'll be able to have that seven days. I have 20 years worth of stuff in there, so it won't be easy."

Staff Writer Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

rbillings@mainetoday.com

Twitter: @randybillings

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