HARPSWELL — Margaret McMahon Hickey purchased her Hildreth Road home in 2001 as a quiet place to retire and write.
She didn’t expect to become embroiled in a lingering dispute over access to one of Harpswell’s prime public landings.
The Hildreth Road town landing is one of the only places along Harpswell Sound where shellfish harvesters, kayakers, lobstermen and other boaters can access the water.
David Wilson, a Harpswell fisherman and Marine Resource Committee member, said he uses the landing frequently, sometimes twice a day, when digging for soft-shell clams.
“In the area, that’s the only one,” he said.
But Gravel Pit Road, which leads to the landing on a fan-shaped, gravel beach, is narrow and has space for only one vehicle to park. Because of this, many harvesters park their trucks and boat trailers on Hickey’s part of the beach.
“They were parking their trucks all over the property, which I didn’t appreciate,” she said.
Hickey said she doesn’t mind if fishermen launch their boats on the town’s part of the landing, which after all, is public property. But she wants them to park elsewhere.
When she approached harvesters about the problem, she said they were openly hostile, threatening and even tried to run over her dog.
But some fishermen said Hickey and a young woman that was living with her up until recently haven’t exactly been polite, either.
“She swears and runs people off,” Wilson said of the young woman. “She’s all but waved guns in people’s faces.”
Scott Moody, a local shellfish harvester and member of the Marine Resources Committee, said Hickey has blocked access to the landing and threatened to tow people’s trucks.
Hickey said she tried putting up private-property signs and even asked the town to place a No Parking sign at the beach, but it has not been successful. As a result, she hired a lawyer and surveyor to help her clarify the boundary and determine what type of access she is required to allow on her beach.
But the conflicts continue, and have escalated to the point where town administrators say they get complaints almost daily about access to the landing.
Now, in an attempt to ensure public access to Harpswell Sound, the town has received a grant from the State Planning Office to research the legal history of the landing. A survey will also be mailed to Harpswell residents to determine the extent of historical use of the landing.
But Deputy Town Administrator Terri Sawyer said she hopes the issue won’t end up in court.
“I’m positive we will reach an agreement,” she said.
Town Administrator Kristi Eiane said the town is willing to work with Hickey, but it has a responsibility to maintain access to a public landing that has been used for more than 30 years.
Although Hickey’s property runs to the low-water mark below the beach, legally she cannot interfere with people’s right to fish, fowl and navigate in the intertidal zone. She does not, however, have to allow parking on her land.
Eiane said she and Sawyer have been brainstorming ideas to solve the parking problem. Legally, the town owns rights of way on both sides of Hildreth Road, where people could park. They’re also considering expanding parking on Gravel Pit Road and filling in the giant pothole at the bottom of the road, where it meets the beach.
But Harbormaster Jim Hays is concerned that even with the road improvement, harvesters will have to cross at least some part of Hickey’s property while backing their boats into the water, a concern that Hickey shares.
The access problems at Hildreth Road landing are exacerbated by issues at other town landings.
Moody said it’s becoming increasingly difficult to park at town landings, as private property owners encroach around them. At Graveyard Point landing, for example, a retaining wall juts into the parking lot.
He said harvesters have taken to launching their boats from the Route 24 landing just across the Gurnet Bridge, but that parking is a problem, there, too.
“We’re just slowly losing access,” he said. “Our town isn’t really motivated to protect it.”
But Sawyer said the town is very concerned about maintaining public access to the shoreline, and is working on opening up Graveyard Point landing to make it “not so intimidating.”
Selectman Alison Hawkes said preserving access is a priority for her, too.
“For us in Harpswell, having those public accesses, not just for our diggers, for our town, is what draws tourists here, what draws people here,” she said.
She said she can understand why Hickey may be annoyed by shellfish harvesters, who are often at the landing early in the morning to launch boats. But she said she hopes Hickey can understand that people use the landing to make a living, and that both sides can operate with mutual respect.
Meanwhile, as the town tries to resolve the conflict, Moody and Wilson said they are going to continue to use over the Hildreth Road landing.
“The harvesters are going down there, going to use it, and going to be respectful, until it goes to court,” Moody said.
“I’m not going to let (Hickey) keep someone like me from making my living,” Wilson said.
Margaret McMahon Hickey, who owns the gravel beach beyond the signs, is trying to keep people from parking on the land that borders Hildreth Road Landing in Harpswell.