Defendant in Harpswell public access lawsuit completes purchase of Cedar Beach Road

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HARPSWELL — Cedar Beach Road, the object of a legal battle over public access, has been purchased by a nearby landowner who plans to keep it private.

Betsy Atkins, through her Florida-based company Gables Real Estate LLC, completed the purchase of the 1,008-foot-long road from Charles and Sally Abrahamson on June 18, according to documents filed at the Cumberland County Registry of Deeds in Portland.

The Abrahamsons and Atkins, through Gables, are co-defendants in a lawsuit seeking public access to the beach, brought against them by the Cedar Beach/Cedar Island Supporters group.

Although the purchase is not expected to have an effect on the outcome of the court case, it will make a challenge to any ruling inevitable, according to the plaintiffs.

“No matter who wins this first round, it will be appealed,” Mike Helfgott, CB/CIS president, said.

The group filed the suit in late 2012 to ensure public use of the private road leading to the beach through a prescriptive easement. 

The group argues that the road has traditionally been used by residents of Harpswell and Bailey Island and should remain open to foot traffic.

Atkins and the Abrahamsons claim that the road was posted against public access more than 50 years ago, preventing the creation of an easement.

A portion of Cedar Beach was opened to the public earlier this year when property owners Jonathan and Rachel Aspatore, working with the town, came to an agreement with CB/CIS to allow access to residents and guests.

For now, however, the beach can only be accessed legally by boat from the water, or with the permission of a neighboring landowner.

A two-day trial in the case was held in Cumberland County Superior Court in late May. The arguments are under review by Justice Nancy Mills.

Atkins intervened in the case as a co-defendant almost six months after it was filed. She later brought in attorneys from the Curtis Thaxter law firm, which is experienced in public access cases.

In a separate purchase from the Abrahamsons, Atkins, through another company, Friends of Cedar Beach LLC, bought a 2.7-acre residential parcel abutting the road. The parcel includes part of Cedar Beach. 

Members of CB/CIS have been waiting for news of the road sale since Atkins testified about her plans at the trial two months ago.

At the time, Atkins said she wanted to buy it in order to prevent public access.

“This is currently a private road and I seek to make sure it remains a private road,” Atkins told the court, according to a trial transcript.

Despite Atkins’ intention, her purchase has no bearing on the current case, said David Bertoni, an attorney representing CB/CIS.

“If the court rules that a public prescriptive easement was created over the road, that ruling will be binding on subsequent land owners, including Ms. Atkins,” Bertoni said in an email. 

The purchase may, however, ensure any ruling in the case is appealed to the Maine Supreme Court, Bertoni added. 

“In buying out the Abrahamsons, Ms. Atkins no longer needs to take their position into account,” Bertoni said in his email. 

“Given this turn of events, and the fact that she’s made it perfectly clear that she doesn’t want Maine families, or anyone else, to enjoy Cedar Beach, an appeal now seems inevitable if the public wins at trial,” he said.

A call to the Abrahamsons’ Bailey Island home was not returned.

Atkins, who also lives in Florida, is an entrepreneur and business executive.

Her purchase of the road means CB/CIS is facing an opponent with more formidable financial resources, and could spur fundraising for an expected legal challenge to the ruling, Helfgott said.

“On the other hand, it had always been our assumption that she either directly or indirectly was helping to finance the court case in any event. In many respects, nothing changes,”  he added.

Atkins did not respond to an email asking about the case. Christian Chandler, an attorney representing Atkins, declined to discuss the sale.

“At this juncture, both my client and I believe that it is prudent to await the judge’s decision before making any comment with regard to Cedar Beach Road,” he said in an email. 

Peter L. McGuire can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or Follow him on Twitter @mcguiremidcoast.