After Harpswell court case, public use surges on beaches

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HARPSWELL — If you open it, they will come.

Town officials say public use of beaches is increasing, in part thanks to successful court battles to open Cedar Beach.

On a recent Friday afternoon, about half a dozen families sun-bathed, beach-combed and swam in the beach’s sandy cove.

The beach had been largely unused for three years, after landowners Charles and Sally Abrahamson blocked the path leading to the beach with a chain and private property signs in 2011.

A group called Cedar Beach/Cedar Island Supporters sued the couple in 2013, and won a 2014 Cumberland County Superior Court ruling establishing a public easement on the path that leads to the beach.

Harpswell residents, nonresident taxpayers and guests can now access the beach by walking the 1,008-foot-long path from the end of Cedar Beach Road.

On a recent afternoon summer resident Gale Jacob said she has been visiting Cedar Beach with her children since the summer of 1969.

“It’s very important to me,” she said. “It’s one of the few sandy beaches in the area.”

Jacob said she made multiple donations to CB/CIS to support the lawsuit.

Further down the sand were visitors discovering the beach for the first time.

Jim and Colette Meyer, of Oregon, said they brought their two children and nephew to the beach after a Google search of “best swimming beaches on Bailey Island.”

As the kids swam the shallows between the beach and the Cedar Island, the Meyers said they had not heard about the lawsuit before coming to the beach, but were alerted by the many CB/CIS “Save Cedar Beach” signs lining the approach on Robin Hood and Cedar Beach roads.

“I’m kind of glad I didn’t know about this drama,” Jim Meyer said. “Beaches should be open.”

Colette Meyer said the children had barely left the water that day. At one point, though, they did resurface, running up the beach to show their parents some sea life.

Fredrich Burchard, visiting Harpswell from Germany, said he found the beach after seeing the signs at the end of Robin Hood Road and following the path down to Cedar Beach with his wife and kids.

He said he found the years-long battle for public access surprising.

“For a European, that’s very strange … beaches should be for the public,” he said.

There’s still a chance, however, that the beach will close again. The landowners in the case, now joined by neighbor Betsy Atkins, who owns a Florida-based real estate company, have appealed the superior court’s decision to the state supreme court.

Oral arguments are expected in the fall. At Harpswell’s last Town Meeting, voters approved a $110,000 appropriation to help cover the case’s legal fees.

Even as the town’s focus has been on Cedar Beach, use of Harpswell’s other beaches has started rising, too, according to town officials.

At a recent public meeting for a proposed boat launch at the town’s Mitchell Field property, Mitchell Field Committee Chairman Rob Roark said he has noticed a significant increase in the number of people using the beach at Mitchell Field in recent years.

On Tuesday, Town Administrator Kristi Eiane said that although the town doesn’t keep any data to confirm this trend, “we are hearing from our volunteers and even some staff members … that (the beach) seems to be more widely used than it has been previously.”

Recreation Director Gina Perow said numbers at the town’s other beaches, like Mitchell Field and Mackerel Cove, definitely went up while Cedar Beach was closed.

“They were looking for other places to access. People were discovering new spots that they weren’t discovering before,” Perow said.

In 2012, the town began publishing a town guide to be distributed by local businesses, restaurants and rentals, listing shore access spots like Mitchell Field.

Perow added that the publicity surrounding the Cedar Beach dispute also raised the public profile of the town’s other beaches.

“We’re (usually) kind of quiet down here,” she said. “By kind of having all of that publicity people are coming this way to see what it was all about.”

Roark said he really started noticing use of Mitchell Field rising three years ago, and that “each year is more than the last.”

Don MisKill, the steward of the Mitchell Field property, said that “like anything, as the word spreads, and people go down there and actually experience it, then the word of mouth keeps on going.”

On July 17 the shore at Mitchell Field was packed with about 40 people, many of them kids running between the water and a tent set up by the Harpswell Neck Physical Education Association, a local nonprofit that runs a day camp every July.

Deb Cornish, the association director, who has been with the organization for 17 years, said they planned to do four beach days at the field this month.

“We take advantage of it. We live here,” she said.

Whether it’s because of the Cedar Beach case, increased advertising of Mitchell Field, or both, Cornish said she has definitely noticed more Harpswell residents and visitors taking to the beaches.

“Last year you could come down and be the only one here,” she said.

Walter Wuthmann can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or Follow Walter on Twitter: @wwuthmann.

Sidebar Elements

Families swim at Cedar Beach in Harpswell, where an easement being challenged in court now allows public access.

Signs at the end of the allocated parking area on Robin Hood Road in Brunswick, where residents can access Cedar Beach.

Brunswick/Harpswell reporter for The Forecaster. Bowdoin College grad, San Francisco Bay Area native. Follow for municipal, school, community, and environmental news from the Midcoast.