HARPSWELL — The victors in a court battle over Cedar Beach Road are asking the town to help pay some of their legal costs.
Members of Cedar Beach/Cedar Island Supporters told selectmen on Oct. 2 that they plan to ask the town to help reimburse the court expenses incurred to secure public access easements to Cedar Beach and the private road leading to it.
The group may ask the town to use some of the $220,000 in bonds approved by voters at Town Meeting last year that were earmarked to help purchase public easements on the two properties.
Selectmen met privately with their attorney and a representative of the group Tuesday afternoon, Oct. 7, to discuss the issue.
The bonds have not been issued, and their authorization expires at the end of December.
“We’d like to talk about a mechanism that can at least begin to free up some of the money before then,” CB/CIS President Mike Helfgott told selectmen, acknowledging that the decision may have to be made by voters at a Town Meeting.
In a phone interview Wednesday, CB/CIS Treasurer Martin Eisenstein, also an attorney at Lewiston-based Brann and Issacson, said the group intends to ask the town for less than the $220,000 approved by voters. But he would not discuss a specific amount.
The group hasn’t decided whether to ask for part of the money already approved by voters, or to make a new request for funding from the town, he added.
“The intent is to obtain funds from the town, however the town wants to provide those funds,” Eisenstein said. “It may require a new Town Meeting and it may not, depending on how the proposal is framed.”
“The community has funded this to a very significant extent and we’re just seeking partial reimbursement of that funding,” he added.
CB/CIS spearheaded the campaign to reopen Cedar Beach to the public after the road’s owners sealed off access on Labor Day three years ago.
The group raised funds to sue Charles and Sally Abrahamson, who owned Cedar Beach Road, in 2012, and Jonathan and Rachel Aspatore, who own part of the beach, in 2013, after negotiations with both parties failed.
A mediated settlement between CB/CIS and the Aspatores in March paved the way for Town Meeting to accept a no-cost easement for access to the beach from the couple.
CB/CIS was unable to negotiate a similar agreement with the Abrahamsons and neighboring landowner Betsy Atkins, who later joined the lawsuit, and the case went to trial in May.
Three weeks ago, Superior Court Justice Nancy Mills, in a 73-page decision, ruled in favor of CB/CIS and its fellow plaintiffs, affirming the public’s right to use to Cedar Beach Road.
Atkins, who purchased Cedar Beach Road in July, is expected to appeal Mills’ ruling to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.
Christian Chandler, the attorney representing Atkins, said his team is waiting for Mill’s ruling on motion to tighten the scope of her judgement to allow only pedestrian traffic on the road before proceeding with the appeal.
In the Oct. 2 meeting, Helfgott told selectmen that the group did not intend to ask for town funding to help with the appeal, but believed the work CB/CIS has done so far to secure easements has lived up to “the spirit” underlying the bond issue.
But Selectman Ellie Multer said she doubted that the funds approved by voters were intended to pay legal fees. Although the group made a “perfectly logical case” for funding, she estimated the bond issue would lapse.
“There was no intention there to pay legal expenses, it was to pay for the easements,” Multer said.
Selectmen met privately with town attorney Amy Tchao in a nearly two-hour executive session Tuesday afternoon. Eisenstein joined the board for about half an hour.
The session was called to help inform the board of the town’s legal rights and duties in regard to the litigation over Cedar Beach Road, Tchao said.
Eisenstein updated the board about the case and discussed sensitive information he was not allowed to disclose in public, she explained.
Any discussion about the funding request specifically will have to happen in public session, Tchao added.
As written, the 2013 bond article is probably not sufficient to give the board the authority to approve a funding request, she noted, making it likely the issue will go to Town Meeting.
“If there’s a funding request that the board wants to entertain I do see that as requiring voter approval,” Tchao said.
The Board of Selectmen intends to discuss the funding issue at a meeting later this month, according to Town Administrator Kristi Eiane.
A handwritten sign at the end of Cedar Beach Road on Bailey Island in Harpswell welcomes the public to the beach.