October 15, 2019
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Maine high court reverses decision giving public access to Harpswell beach

Peter L. McGuire | The Forecaster
Peter L. McGuire | The Forecaster
A handwritten sign at the end of Cedar Beach Road on Bailey Island in Harpswell welcomes the public to the beach on Oct. 10, 2014.

HARPSWELL, Maine — The Maine Supreme Judicial Court on Tuesday overturned a 2014 Superior Court decision that granted public use of Cedar Beach Road, effectively blocking all access to tiny but popular Cedar Beach on Bailey Island.

The decisi on is the latest in a years-long series of court battles over public access to private shorefront property and signals a victory for property owners.

David Bertoni, who represented a group of Harpswell residents and the group Cedar Beach/Cedar Island Supports Inc., said Tuesday that he had not yet met with his clients to discuss whether they would file a motion to reconsider.

“It certainly is a step in the direction of the limiting of public access if it [stands],” Bertoni said.

Portland attorney Benjamin Leoni, who represented Betsy Atkins, who through Gables LLC owns Cedar Beach Road, disagreed, arguing that the decision actually encourages private landowners to allow public recreational use without worry that such usage could erode their rights as owners.

The decision represents the latest chapter in a five-year dispute between a group of Harpswell residents and two consecutive owners of Cedar Beach Road.

In 2011, Charles and Sally Abrahamson blocked access to the road and the small beach at the end. After negotiations between residents, town officials and the couple broke down, the group filed suit, and a three-day bench trial took place in May 2014.

Before a decision was rendered, the family sold the home to Atkins, who, according to Leoni, spends part of the year in Florida.

Through Florida-based real estate company Gables LLC, Atkins also purchased Cedar Beach Road from the Abrahamsons in 2014 for $95,000, The Forecaster reported. She purchased the Abrahamsons’ nearly 4,000-square-foot home, on 1.12 acres, for nearly $1.58 million through a different company, Neighbors of Cedar Beach LLC.

Harpswell voters approved spending $110,000 to help pay legal fees incurred by the citizens group fighting for public access.

Four months later, Superior Court Justice Nancy Mills ruled that Cedar Beach/Cedar Island Supporters Inc. had proved continuous use of the road for more than 20 years and established a public easement to the beach.

In November 2015, Gables LLC appealed the decision to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, arguing that the lower court had misinterpreted facts and that past owners of the property had repeatedly attempted to block public access along Cedar Beach Road.

On Tuesday, the law court cited a 2002 decision in overturning Mills, asserting, “The presumption of permission promotes the long tradition in Maine of public recreational use of private property by assuring that such use ‘is consistent with, and in no way diminishes, the rights of the owner in his land.”

 

Correction: A previous version of this story included an incorrect first name for Betsy Atkins, owner of Cedar Beach Road in Harpswell.


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