A 2018 artist’s rendering of the Nordic Aquafarms facility proposed for construction beside Little River in Belfast. Courtesy of Nordic Aquafarms

Nordic Aquafarms has filed a lawsuit asking the Maine Superior Court to determine whether the Belfast City Council can reverse its decision to seize a piece of land the company needs to build its controversial $500 million fish farm in Belfast.

In 2021, the Belfast City Council seized a parcel of mudflats in part to guarantee Nordic had access to Penobscot Bay amid disputes about whether the company owned the land in question. But in May, the council unanimously voted to withdraw its land seizure decision – a response to multiple lawsuits, including one in which a Waldo County Superior Court ordered Belfast to make a new decision about its eminent domain claim.

Nordic, the Norwegian developer behind what would be one of the largest land-based salmon farms in the world, said that the lawsuit is a symbol of its commitment to Belfast and the project.

“Having the Superior Court determine Nordic’s rights following the council vote is an important part of the development process, and Nordic is committed to seeing it through,” spokesperson Jacki Cassida said on Wednesday. “We are dedicated to Belfast and want to continue bringing other economic benefits to Belfast and the surrounding region by completing the development of its fully permitted on-land aquaculture facility.”

Nordic has faced multiple lawsuits, either as the direct defendant or in connection with cases challenging its fish farm. None has so far gone in the company’s favor. This is the first lawsuit that Nordic has filed in the years-long process of trying to build the farm.

THE LOSS OF SEIZURE

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Nordic has been trying to build the land-based salmon farm in Belfast since 2018. It would use 54 acres of land to produce 66 million pounds of salmon each year. It would do so in part by installing pipes running beneath a piece of intertidal land to pump water in and out of Penobscot Bay.

The company maintains that the project is environmentally conscious and in accordance with regulations from various state agencies and the city of Belfast that have issued permits and leases enabling the farm to move forward. And, along the way, it will create jobs and economic development in Belfast, the company has said.

But numerous conservation groups quickly opposed the project. They are concerned that the project would have negative environmental impacts, pollute Penobscot Bay, overwhelm local infrastructure and infringe on the rights of the conservation easement owned by the neighbors.

Organizations such as Upstream Watch and the Friends of Harriet L. Hartley have responded by suing Nordic and the city of Belfast as they both tried to push the project forward.

Those court cases have not gone in Nordic’s favor. The Friends of Harriet L. Hartley has disputed that Nordic owned the mudflats it purportedly purchased to gain access to Penobscot Bay. In March 2023, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court ultimately ruled that a neighboring couple owned the land.

In another case with Maine’s highest court, Upstream Watch sued the city of Belfast for denying its ability to appeal the Belfast zoning board’s municipal permits issued for the project. The zoning board of appeals had originally believed Upstream Watch wouldn’t be affected by Nordic Aquafarms’ project. The Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the zoning board of appeals had erred in judgment and must redetermine whether Upstream Watch can appeal.

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Along the way, the Belfast City Council voted in 2021 year to seize those mudflats by eminent domain – before the court ruled on whether Nordic owned the land.

Most city councilors have historically supported the fish farm, agreeing that Nordic would bring in valuable economic development through jobs and property tax revenue. And councilors said they would use the land to create a public park, which is currently a conservation easement owned by Jeffrey Mabee and Judith Grace that precludes any non-residential use of the property.

But the city lost a suit in which Mabee and Grace challenged that eminent domain seizure. Waldo County Superior Court Justice Robert Murray ordered the councilors to reevaluate the city’s eminent domain seizure – choosing to either alter, amend or vacate the decision.

Acting on those decisions – and weighing the costs of getting involved in complicated legal battles – councilors voted unanimously in May to vacate the eminent domain claim. That vote came after 1 ½ hours of public comment where all but a few urged the council to walk back its support of Nordic.

“We have bigger fish to fry than this issue,” Mayor Eric Sanders said in April, when councilors preliminarily approved the withdrawal. “I don’t see the city needing to be in the middle because neither side seems to be acquiescing toward a solution that will lead to a resolution that will lead to something happening there.”

Belfast’s attorney, Kristin Collins, would not comment on the lawsuit Wednesday night because the city has not yet been served.

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AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE

Nordic has maintained that it’s going to see the project through, despite the obstacles. But with each legal loss, conservationists, city officials and spectators have questioned whether the fish farm has a viable future. State agencies also have rescinded permits and leases until Nordic can prove it has a right to use the land.

“Nordic’s actions to turn around and file this against the city appear to be a last-ditch effort to save a project that, at this point more than six years after it was first proposed, appears more and more unlikely to ever be built,” said Jill Howell, the executive director of Upstream Watch.

Now, Nordic is the one taking action.

Along the city of Belfast and the City Council, Nordic also has named the Friends and Mabee and Grace as parties of interest. In the lawsuit, filed on May 16, the company argues that the withdrawal violates Maine law; the city made decisions based on “findings that were not supported by evidence”; the eminent domain seizure has already been finalized and cannot be reversed; and, with that finalization, the city granted Nordic a real property interest to use that land which cannot be revoked.

Nordic is asking the court to rule that the eminent domain revocation violates state laws, is subsequently invalid, and order the city to reverse its revocation. The company is also asking the court to maintain that the rights the city gave Nordic to use those mudflats are still in effect.

The city has maintained that vacating the eminent domain seizure is the only choice that is in accordance with state laws and court rulings. And, adding to what is already a long list of complications, questions have been raised about whether the land falls within the city’s boundaries.

Conservationists see the suit as proof that councilors did not vote to seize the land to create a public park in good faith – and that Nordic knew about the city’s real intentions all along.

“Nordic’s suit confirms that the taking was done for Nordic’s benefit – not for use of this land as a park,” said Kim Ervin Tucker, attorney for the Friends of Harriet L. Hartley, Mabee and Grace. “Nordic’s suit simply confirms that the taking was always illegal and no court will punish Belfast for vacating an illegal condemnation order based on directions in a remand order from the Superior Court, and determinations in a Law Court decision.”

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