High court rules for 'Secret Beach' homeowner
CAPE ELIZABETH — The Maine Supreme Judicial Court this week affirmed a lower court decision enforcing a negotiated settlement of a 4-year-old beach access dispute that has polarized a Broad Cove neighborhood.
According to one attorney involved in the case, the ruling in favor of Running Tide Road residents Paul Woods and Helen Muther means the Broad Cove Shore Association must reach an accommodation with Woods and Muther, who have asserted they have control over access to Maxwell Point Beach.
The association claimed a 2006 settlement agreement was not a binding document, but a Maine Superior Court judge disagreed and in a ruling issued Tuesday, so did the state supreme court.
The dispute began in June 2005, when Woods posted a no-trespassing sign at the top of a foot path on his property leading to a 125-foot section of what is commonly called "Secret Beach."
Woods and Muther posted the property in response to late-night beach parties, dogs running loose on their lawn and other disregard for their property. They also listed 17 neighborhood residents they believed did have deeded access to the path and the beach.
In response to the sign, the association of nearly 250 residents claimed it had deeded and "prescriptive rights" to the beach, which the neighborhood had used for decades before Woods and Muther moved in in 1999.
When an agreement could not be reached that summer and fall, Muther and Woods sued the association in an attempt to ban anyone without deeded beach rights. They also asked the court to award damages for trespassing and slander. The association filed a counterclaim in December 2005, denying Woods' claim and asserting a right to use the easement and beach.
Just days before the matter was scheduled for trial in November 2006, a settlement agreement was reached. The agreement was read into court record, and both sides' attorneys were set to work on the formal settlement document and details.
On its Web site, the Broad Cove association claims that after the "agreement in principal" was reached in mediation, it attempted to reach a written agreement that would have "involved the erection of a gate with access cards issued by the BCA." That written agreement, the Web site says, could not be reached, so the BCA took the position that "there was no enforceable settlement agreement."
The association's attorney, Andrew Sparks, said that several settlement details could not be agreed upon by both parties, including who would control the gate, whether those accessing the beach were allowed above the high-tide line, and how disputes would be arbitrated.
According to court documents, the association "refused to sign a draft of the stipulated judgement," and that subsequent attempts to agree on the terms failed.
Superior Court Justice Robert Crowley ruled that because the agreement was read
into court record it was an enforceable agreement regardless of the level of detail, ruling in favor of
Muther and Woods. The BCA appealed to the supreme court, hoping to either clarify details within the settlement agreement or "send it back to square one," Sparks said.
Muther and Woods amended their complaint to add a count of breach
of settlement agreement and filed a second lawsuit, which also includes
claims that the association misrepresented matters during the first
settlement negotiations, according to Sparks. Ruling on the second lawsuit was stayed pending a decision on the first.
Meanwhile, residents last May noticed that Muther and Woods had erected the gate and fence blocking access to the easement path and beach, but the BCA asked the court to order it removed because settlement details had not been established.
According to the association's Web site, Woods' attorney agreed to keep the gate open after a separate lawsuit was filed by one of the 17 Broad Cove residents with uncontested deeded rights. Further details regarding the gate will be decided as part of the second lawsuit filed by Muther and Woods, according to Sparks.
With the association's appeal rejected, Sparks said he isn't sure if final settlement details could be arbitrated privately or if further court proceedings would be required. He said some of the issues may be resolved through the pending lawsuit.
Muther's and Woods' attorney was not available for comment Thursday. Woods declined to comment.
Sarah Trent can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 108 or firstname.lastname@example.org.