TREMONT — The Department of Marine Resources approved the transfer of an aquaculture lease last week for a Blue Hill Bay mussel farm that has been the focus of prolonged and bitter opposition, but the battle over the 15-acre site located east of Hardwood Island is far from over.
Last June, DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher approved renewal of an aquaculture lease for Maine Cultured Mussels Inc., allowing it to continue to grow blue mussels in a group of circular fish pens on a 15-acre site. The renewal extended the lease for a period of seven years, until March of 2020. The lease extension was signed last month.
More than five years ago, in 2012, the company asked that its lease be extended until March 2023, the maximum allowable 10-year term after its expiration in March 2013.
Last week, the DMR announced that it had authorized transfer of the lease from Maine Cultured Mussels Inc., a corporation owned by Erick Swanson of Tremont, to Mussel Bound Farms, a corporation owned by Swanson’s sons, Erick Spencer Swanson and Reid Arthur Swanson.
When it issued its decision in June, the DMR said that the nearly five-year delay in responding to the renewal application was attributable to “numerous factors” including, among others, “the number and complexity of issues surrounding the lease renewal” and “the existence of several other complex lease applications being processed at the same time” that the DMR “was undergoing numerous staffing changes.”
After the decision was announced, Friends of Blue Hill Bay, a local conservation organization, asked the Maine Superior Court to review the lease renewal. The conservation group is asking the court to reverse the DMR decision and to vacate the lease renewal.
In the petition for review, Sally Mills, the organization’s Ellsworth attorney, claimed, “In granting the application for renewal, the commissioner has turned a blind eye to egregious and dangerous conditions that are likely to continue.”
According to Mills, if the company breached the terms of its initial lease, the commissioner could not renew it though he considered those violations inconsequential.
The conservation group also raised another issue in its petition.
The DMR issued two proposed decisions on the lease renewal. The first came a year ago in November; the second in May. Both contained substantially identical fact findings and legal conclusions, but they arrived at different results. The first decision denied the renewal. The second approved it.
It was the transfer of that lease that the DMR approved last week.
After the transfer was formally approved, Erick Swanson said that his sons were now operating the mussel farm and that the business was doing well.
On Monday, Mills said that proceedings on the petition for review were still underway, but no decision was in sight.
“I filed a brief last week, and I’m waiting for a reply from them,” Mills said. She had no estimate of when the court would act.