CAPE ELIZABETH, Maine — In the latest, incremental sign of progress in the long-running dispute over access to Maxwell Point Beach, Maine’s highest court has ruled it’s OK for a resident to use surveillance cameras to monitor the easement to the privately owned beach.
The Supreme Judicial Court ruled April 2 that stationary video cameras, owned by Paul Woods and Helen Muther and stationed on their property at 20 Running Tide Road, do not obstruct or violate neighbors’ rights to access the beach commonly known as “Secret Beach.”
The ruling does not end the dispute, but must be honored by a lower court hearing litigation that dates back to 2005, when Woods and Muther planted a no-trespassing sign on the easement adjacent to their home in an effort to restrict beach access and activity.
Neighbors in the Broad Cove Shore Association, which represents about 250 homeowners in the area, claim they have a right to access the beach using the easement. Some of them, identified as the “J-Lot owners,” have deeded beach rights that the courts have already affirmed.
“Hopefully, the disputes between J-Lot owners and Woods have now been resolved,” Thomas McNaboe, attorney for the J-Lot owners, said in an email.
Neither Woods nor his lawyer, James Billings, returned calls requesting comment.
In the original 2005 lawsuit, the principal dispute was whether Woods could impose restrictions on use, such as hours of activity and number of guests for all beach users.
After several claims and counterclaims, the parties reached a settlement in 2006 that allowed Woods to install a fence and gated electronic access to J-Lot neighbors for free, and to other neighbors in return for a maintenance fee. Time parameters for use were also established for the Broad Cove neighbors.
Multiple appeals have followed that decision, leading the high court to rule in 2012 that while J-Lot neighbors have a right to access the beach, they are limited to bringing 10 adults or eight adults and five children.
According to court records, the issue of surveillance first came up after some neighbors were granted access to the beach via the easement. Before the cameras were installed, Woods would personally photograph people as they crossed the easement to the beach and monitor their activity.
Neighbors reported they felt intimidated by this and that it violated their privacy, leading to more litigation.
The court ruled that by personally photographing the neighbors, Woods was in violation of the 2006 settlement, which stated that “there’s been a lot of controversy with respect to particularly Mr. Woods’ approach to various easement holders and that they anticipate that part of the nondisturbance clause includes the fact that peaceful users of the access are not gonna [sic] be photographed, approached, or questioned while they’re enjoying the easement.”
And while Woods’ photography was in violation of the nondisturbance clause, the latest ruling permits the use of surveillance cameras, with the justices noting that the previous settlement “did not specifically address the use of surveillance cameras as part of an access system.”
The justices ruled that because surveillance has become so ubiquitous in modern society, Woods’ use of stationary cameras could not be seen as intrusive or a violation of rights.
“Such common, unobtrusive recording by a stationary video camera or cameras installed on one’s own property for surveillance or security purposes is not the type of confrontational, in-your-face photography described in the record … and addressed in the nondisturbance clause of the 2006 settlement agreement,” the court said in the ruling written by Justice Donald Alexander.
The cameras allow Woods to monitor the easement, make distinctions between the rights of different users, and determine authorized and unauthorized use.
While the case has already generated a mass of appeals during over eight years, more remain.
An appeal regarding the agreement for permissive use between Woods and the Broad Cove Association neighbors is pending in Cumberland County Superior Court.
Attempts to reach neighborhood association leaders were unsuccessful.