Public response grows as Harpswell beach owner blocks access
HARPSWELL — The dispute over an easement at Cedar Beach has prompted a property owner to block access to an area that some residents claim they've been using since the 1950s.
Charles Abrahamson, who this spring approached the town with an offer to sell an easement to the Bailey Island beach, recently posted no-trespassing signs near a footpath leading to the popular stretch of sand on Water Cove.
"Sorry," one sign reads, "no public access to our private beach at this time."
Another reads: "Due to actions by the town Cedar Beach (our private beach) is closed."
The signs are the most recent escalation in a dispute that began in May when the Board of Selectmen suspended private negotiations with Abrahamson. According to Chairman Jim Henderson, the board sought to determine the public's historical access to Cedar Beach after Abrahamson offered to sell it.
Henderson would not disclose Abrahamson's offer, saying only that he would characterize it as "a lot."
"Some people have asked why we are doing this now," Henderson said. "The answer is that we have a proposal for an easement which we cannot take to Town Meeting without first seeing if the public has already established rights there."
In June, the town began a survey asking residents how long they've been using Cedar Beach, and how they've accessed the property. There have been more than 70 responses, a total that Henderson said will likely increase as residents learn that Abrahamson has blocked access to the property.
Henderson said he spoke with some residents who were handing out the surveys "like candy" after being told they couldn't use the beach.
Abrahamson has declined repeated requests for comment. However, several of his neighbors have expressed opposition to the town's inquiry into establishing historical public access to the beach.
Sarah Wilkinson, of Cragmoore Lane, which is off Cedar Beach Road, last month wrote a letter to the town expressing concern about parking issues, "an ongoing problem" with litter and "beachgoers using the neighbors' property as a toilet to relieve themselves in the bushes."
Henderson said the neighbors' concerns are legitimate. However, he said, the town would have "an obligation to take their interests into account" if it pursues the easement.
According to several of the surveys submitted to the town, residents have been using Cedar Beach, building sandcastles and catching hermit crabs, for at least 50 years.
Barbara Stetson Messamore wrote that she took a swimming lesson at Cedar Beach in 1954.
"It would be a travesty to lose the beach to special interests," wrote Rick Murphy of Bailey Island, who added that the beach used to be called Hermit Crab Beach.
Shawn Johnson, of Orr's Island, said he'd been using the beach since the 1960s
Many said that they parked their cars on Robin Hood Road and walked past a chain gate on private Cedar Beach Road to access the beach. Many of the respondents said they had never asked permission.
Nonetheless, some residents objected to the town's approach for a public easement.
In a July 1 e-mail message to selectmen, Gary Vincent called the effort an "attack on private property."
"If the current property owners are willing to sell the town an easement, and you vote to pursue it, then do so," Vincent wrote. "To attempt to 'steal' individual property rights simply because the current and prior property owners graciously allowed (its) use, while possibly legal, is clearly immoral."
Henderson said this week that board will meet with some Cedar Beach neighbors at 5 p.m. on July 14 at the Orr's Island school house to discuss the matter. After that, he said, the town would continue to collect surveys until Sept. 1, at which point the board will assess the responses.
With temperatures rising and the beach closed, Henderson said he expects many more residents to become involved in the decision.
"I fully anticipate a lot more survey response between now and Sept. 1," he said.
Steve Mistler can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 123 or firstname.lastname@example.org