End in sight in fight over Cape Elizabeth beach access

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CAPE ELIZABETH — A 6-year-old dispute over access to Maxwell Point Beach isn’t over, but several recent court decisions have moved the process toward a resolution.

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled Tuesday, March 22, on who can use the easement to what is commonly known as “Secret Beach” and who is restricted from the path.

The easement is next to the home of Running Tide Road residents Paul Woods and Helen Muther, who in 2005 posted a no-trespassing sign on their property leading to the beach to restrict beach activity, trespassing and vandalism.

After several claims, counter-claims, appeals and lower-court rulings, the high court justices said a gate and fence erected by Woods and Muther can remain in place.

They also said members of the the Broad Cove Shore Association, a group of nearly 250 neighbors who believed they had a right to access the easement and beach, must pay an annual access fee and help maintain the gate and fence.

Another group of neighbors living in what is known as the J-Lot section of the subdivision, who have deeded beach rights and believed they, too, had legal access to the beach, will be allowed to use the gate and beach without a fee.

Public access is prohibited, and there are additional restrictions on how residents with legal access may use the beach.

Walter McKee, an attorney for Woods and Muther, said his clients were “very pleased” with the court’s rulings.

“This appeal has been very helpful in letting us know who can use the easement and what can be done on the beach,” he said. 

Steven Bither, one of the lawyers representing the J-Lot owners, said the supreme court decision is a victory for his clients because they are allowed to use the easement with no time restrictions and can bring a reasonable amount of guests to the beach.

“We respect the ruling of the court and hope this arrangement works,” Bither said.

While the court ruled that the use of the gate was reasonable, more litigation is expected to determine the use of the surveillance cameras.

“This isn’t over, but we are as close as we have ever been,” McKee said.

“The lower court wanted Woods to remove the camera, but Woods implied it was needed for safety precautions,” Bither said. “There needs to be a balance between safety and how it makes people feel and that will be addressed when it comes back to court.”

Woods and Muther said they want to get past the last six years of litigation. In a prepared statement, they said they hope the decision “will help restore respect for our private property and prevent the trespassing and vandalism that we have experienced many times in the past.”

They said the court decision affirms their original claims that their private land extends to the “entire full upland dry sand section” of the property and that they can protect their property with an electronic access-controlled gate.

“As private property owners we are pleased that after six years of protracted litigation the Maine Law Court affirmed our original core positions in both the present and previous matter before them,” they said. 

Woods and Muther said they look forward to “working with our neighbors to ensure ongoing compliance with the specific authorized use of the easement over our property for reasonable, responsible and limited use of the intertidal zone consistent with the present Law Court decision and past Settlement Agreement.

“It’s our wish to move forward at this point,” they said, “and, perhaps most importantly, let the healing process begin.”

Attorneys representing the Broad Cove Shore Association did not return phone calls and emails.

Amy Anderson can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or aanderson@theforecaster.net

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