Beach access dispute ignites Harpswell residents

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HARPSWELL — A week after holding a well-attended public hearing about the town’s pursuit of public access at Cedar Beach, the Board of Selectmen met with the town attorney Tuesday to discuss its next course of action.

Board Chairman Jim Henderson said Tuesday that the closed-door meeting was prompted by several questions raised during the July 14 hearing.

The meeting drew close to 150 residents, even though it was originally scheduled only for neighbors who had expressed concerns about the town’s pursuit of a public easement to the popular beach on Bailey Island.

In the past, residents have accessed the beach via Charles Abrahamson’s property at 99 Cedar Beach Road. Earlier this year Abrahamson approached the town with an offer to sell an easement.

Henderson, who described the offer as “considerable,” said the town was then advised by its attorney to see if the public had already a established a historical right to Cedar Beach through years of continuous use, otherwise known as easement by prescription.

Prescription is different from eminent domain, which involves taking property. Henderson said the town has no interest in eminent domain, only maintaining public access to a beach some residents claim their families have been using since the 1930s.

To make its case, the town has begun collecting surveys asking residents how long they’ve used the beach. Two weeks ago, more than 70 surveys had been submitted. As of Wednesday, Terri Sawyer, the deputy town administrator, said more than 300 surveys had been collected.

Abrahamson has taken exception to the town’s strategy. In June he began blocking access to the beach, which angered some residents during the July 14 public hearing.

“(The Abrahamsons) are going to come in and take (the beach) from someone who has been using it for over 75 years,” Phil Dudley said. “And just because they want to make an extra dollar. It’s not right. … The people that go down there, for the most part, respect it, love it and enjoy it. I don’t think someone should come in over greed and take it away.”

Abrahamson did not attend the meeting. However, Richard Abbondanza, Abrahamson’s attorney, told the group his client stayed away because he feared hurtful things would be said.

Abbondanza said Abrahamson “in no way wanted to restrict access” to Cedar Beach, that he favored “status quo” and “managed access.”

“I think the best solution is to continue the conversation that started over the winter,” said Abbondanza, referring to close-door negotiations between the Board of Selectmen and Abrahamson that were suspended in June.

Abbondanza also warned that the town’s pursuit of a public easement through court action could be costly.

Abbondanza said his client wanted the same thing as most residents: a public easement. But, as the attorney concluded his comments, someone in the audience said, “Then why doesn’t (Abrahamson) donate it?”

The remark echoed those of several other residents.

Dana Baggett, who lives on Cedar Beach Road, said it was “inconceivable to claim that the public doesn’t have the right of way.”

Shannon Langston-Johnson said it was “appalling” that she couldn’t go down to “my beach.”

“It’s taking away from islanders,” she said. “We have a right to that beach. It’s a historical right.”

Although most residents spoke in favor of a public easement, some neighbors voiced concerns about increasing access.

Rachel Aspatore said that while most locals respect the beach and neighbors’ property, some non-residents don’t. She said they have urinated or defecated on her property.

“We have a couple of huge pine trees,” Aspatore said. “People climb in there and poop. I mean, it’s appalling.”

Several other neighbors had similar concerns, although most said they favor a public easement.

“I’ll pick up trash along the road,” said Robert Leeman, who lives on Robinhood Road. “I’ll do what I have to do. Just don’t close the beach.”

Henderson said the town would finish the survey collection this summer before considering additional action. He added that while the town is looking to establishing historical access, it remains open to other options.

“Our goal is to provide continued access,” he said.

Steve Mistler can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 123 or smistler@theforecaster.net

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