Frustrated with selectmen, Harpswell group seeks new routes for gaining public access to blocked beach
HARPSWELL, Maine — With two lawsuits in progress, the group advocating to restore access to Cedar Beach is exploring alternative methods to reach the once-popular Bailey Island destination.
Meanwhile, the Board of Selectmen is denying claims by some members of the Cedar Beach/Cedar Island Supporters that it has not played an adequate role in the effort to restore beach access.
Cedar Beach/Cedar Island Supporters President Michael Helfgott said the group is working with three property owners who live adjacent to the beach and are willing to offer easements across their land to avoid using the private portion of Cedar Beach Road for access.
“We just think that’s fantastic and really applaud their public-spiritedness,” Helfgott said.
Cedar Beach/Cedar Island Supporters is suing Charles and Sally Abrahamson to seek a prescriptive easement on their road to Cedar Beach, which the couple blocked in 2011.
The group is also suing Jonathan and Rachel Aspatore to reaffirm an easement for Harpswell residents on a parcel owned by the couple that connects Cedar Beach Road with the beach.
If Cedar Beach/Cedar Island Supporters were able to establish easements with the three other property owners, Helfgott said, beach-goers might be able to access the beach from the public intersection of Cedar Beach and Robinhood roads.
Marty Eisenstein, Cedar Beach/Cedar Island Supporters’ lawyer, said it’s too early to say what would become of the lawsuits against the Abrahamsons and Aspatores if alternative access were created because the easements are still under negotiation with the three property owners.
He said the town of Harpswell would likely be the recipient of the deeds.
“We’re still working out the details before we can present it to the parties,” Eisenstein said.
The property owners were identified as Joan Lester, Guy Haines and Elizabeth Parks, all of Cedar Beach Road, in a recent Cedar Beach/Cedar Island Supporters newsletter.
Lester declined to discuss the negotiations Tuesday.
In the meantime, selectmen issued a statement defending themselves against accusations they haven’t done enough to restore access to Cedar Beach.
Chairwoman Elinor Multer said the board decided to issue the letter at its Sept. 6 meeting because recent correspondence from constituents was blaming the selectmen for not being active in the beach-access campaign.
“Some are very nostalgic, some are more severe,” Multer said, “but they all paint a picture that says, ‘we don’t want to lose this beach.’ But there’s an impression that we aren’t doing anything, partly because [some of our work] is out of sight.”
The selectmen’s letter recalls the town’s past involvement in trying to obtain legal access to the Cedar Beach.
In 2010, the Abrahamsons approached the selectmen and proposed to sell a public easement on Cedar Beach Road to the town for $950,000, based on an appraisal by the property owners that estimated they would lose that much in market value if public beach access was allowed.
Selectmen obtained their own appraisal of lost market value, at $220,000, which eventually became the amount the town was willing to appropriate at a town meeting in March 2011 to purchase the easement.
Several groups, including Friends of Cedar Beach — a separate group from Cedar Beach/Cedar Island Supporters — and the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust attempted to raise the remainder to reach the $950,000 but failed after not being able to obtain a state grant.
The deadline to use the town’s appropriation expired in December 2011.
After Cedar Beach/Cedar Island Supporters formed and sued the Abrahamsons in October 2012, selectmen agreed to propose another $220,000 appropriation at this year’s town meeting. That proposal passed by a wide margin.
The release of funds would require legal documents showing that easements have been obtained for access to Cedar Beach.
During and after failed attempts by Cedar Beach/Cedar Island Supporters to negotiate out-of-court settlements with the Abrahamsons and Aspatores, the selectmen worked with the group in executive sessions to coordinate efforts to obtain access.
The selectmen then made a few failed attempts to meet with the Aspatores, whose agreement hinged on the success of a settlement with the Aspatores.
When Cedar Beach/Cedar Island Supporters felt convinced the Aspatores would not be willing to negotiate, it decided to sue the property owners in August.
Helfgott said while he recognizes what the selectmen have done so far, he thinks they should have played more of a leading role.
He said this would have likely meant having selectmen take the initiative to sue the Abrahamsons and Aspatores.
“In all honesty, the way I look at government, I think this would have been a wonderful thing for the selectmen to do on their own,” Helfgott said. “We may have never had to form this group because this would have been a town-initiated effort and the town could have felt that somebody is depriving the townspeople of access to a beach that they have historically have.”
While Multer said she is sympathetic to Cedar Beach/Cedar Island Supporters, she said the town would not have a legal case to restore beach access.
“For us to get involved in litigation is for us to get involved in an open-ended lawsuit, where you have no control of the costs or the outcome,” she said.
Multer said the town’s obligation to its taxpayers is considerably different in nature from Cedar Beach/Cedar Island Supporters obligation to members who donate to the group’s legal fund.
“We’re playing with other people’s money,” she said, “and they’re using other people’s money. We have a different kind of obligation to people who provide our revenue.”