ROCKLAND, Maine — A New York couple who purchased a home near the end of a private dirt road more than two years ago filed a lawsuit against the town and their neighbors because they felt bullied, their attorney said Monday.
But the attorneys representing the town and the neighbors argued that what they call their driveway is really part of a public easement road which has been maintained by the town for decades and which entitles the public to use it.
Those were the opening statements offered Monday morning in Knox County Superior Court in the civil trial resulting from the lawsuit filed in November 2011 by Darlene F. Edwards and Lewis M. Edwards III of Saugerties, N.Y., against the town of Owls Head and against neighbors Cynthia S. Blackman, Nathalie M. Scott, Willis A. Scott Jr., Eliot A. Scott and Constance M. Scott.
The non-jury trial is expected to last throughout the week with Justice Jeffrey Hjelm presiding.
“This case is about neighborhood bullies,” attorney David Soley of Portland said in his opening arguments.
The Edwardses purchased a private home at the end of a private road, overlooking the harbor, and simply wanted peace and quiet to enjoy that home, Soley said. He said neighbors, who do not have waterfront property, have been crossing the driveway to get to the waterfront.
The Edwardses erected a private property sign on the driveway and a neighbor responded by taking it down, knocking at their door and waving the sign in their face. The neighbors then continued to cross the property, Soley said.
Soley disputed the claims by the town that a 1986 town meeting accepting Coopers Beach Road as a public easement road included that section that is now the Edwardses driveway. He also argued that the town did not obtain a prescriptive easement simply by snowplowing the road. Soley argued that if a neighbor plows someone’s driveway, it does not entitle that neighbor the right to use that driveway without the owner’s permission.
Attorney Judy Metcalf of Brunswick, who represents the neighbors, countered that this was not a case of bullying.
She said members of the Scott family have had ownership of properties on Coopers Beach Road since 1919, including at one time what is now what the Edwardses say is their driveway.
“Despite the drama in Mr. Soley’s opening remarks, this case is not about bullying, it’s about patterns of use,” Metcalf said.
She said she would offer a witness who would testify that the town has plowed the road since 1973.
“This is about a community of neighbors,” she said.
Town attorney William Dale of South Portland said that the road, including the driveway, is part of a public easement road. Public easement roads means that the town will provide a service, such as snowplowing, in exchange for use by the general public.
Dale said Monday, during a break in the trial, that the Edwardses are claiming ownership of about 300 feet of what they say is their driveway but the town maintains is the public easement road. The couple have a real driveway off that road, he said. Also, the property is listed in town records as 70 Coopers Beach Road.
The town filed paperwork in court stating that it has plowed the road to the Edwards property and beyond to a turn around since 1974. There also was a town meeting vote held in 1986 to accept the public easement signed by the property owners at that time. The board of selectmen voted in October 2011 to reaffirm that there was a public easement for the town to plow the road.
There are a dozen or so roads with public easements, Dale said. There are other roads in which landowners did not want the services and declined having a public easement.
“The trade off is that you can’t say people can’t pass if you accept the snowplowing,” he said.
Since the lawsuit was filed in November 2011, residents have voted twice at town meetings to support spending money to defend the town’s interests. In December 2011, nearly 100 residents turned out to approve spending $50,000 to defend the town. In March 2012, 54 people turned out to agree to spend an additional $15,000.
Residents at those meetings had voiced support for the town’s position in the past as a way to send a message to people from out of state who own property near the waterfront.
The Edwardses purchased the 1.7-acre lot at the end of Coopers Beach Road in March 2011 for $274,300 after a bank foreclosed on the previous owners. Coopers Beach Road runs from North Shore Drive to near the harbor.
Soley said the action of the town has been the taking of the Edwardses property.
The neighbors, Edwardses, and Richard Carver, the chairman of the Board of Selectmen, were in attendance Monday morning for the trial.