Harpswell hopes to expand coastal public access

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HARPSWELL — The town wants your land – if it’s next to a town landing, and you want to give it up.

Property owners whose homes abut public water access points may soon receive a letter from the town expressing interest in their lots.

“As you are aware,” a draft letter states, “as land values in Harpswell increase and development occurs, certain access places to Harpswell’s waters may be jeopardized.”

“One facet of our long-term plans to preserve public access includes acquiring properties that are privately owned but appropriate for public use,” it continues. 

The letter goes on to say that the town has an interest in the landowner’s specific parcel: “We would be happy to discuss the possible acquisition of your lands, or portions of it, when and if you decide to sell or transfer your lands.”

The idea to reach out to property owners came after the town acquired a small parcel abutting Graveyard Point, on Harpswell Neck.

The town manages a small boat launch and gravel beach on the point. Recently, the owners of a small fish house off the beach decided to stop paying property taxes on the lot, effectively relinquishing ownership to the town.

Harpswell formally acquired the land in December 2015.

In a Town Lands Committee workshop with the Board of Selectmen May 12, committee members discussed plans to tear down the small building and build a turnaround.

Graveyard Point has seven parking spots on a dead-end road; constructing a traffic turnaround would make access to the site much easier, committee members said.

The experience on Graveyard Point led them to wonder what other opportunities might exist to expand access to current public landings.

Hope Hilton, who serves on the committee, said at the recent workshop that the committee often becomes aware of such properties after it’s too late.

“The landlord may not think of the town” when he or she decides to sell property, she said.

The committee hopes the letter they’ve drafted may spur some landowners to consider giving the town an option on their land, or transfer it, in the future.

Selectmen agreed with the committee members’ sentiment.

But, Selectman Elinor Multer warned, “(we need) to be very, very clear that nobody is thinking about trying to take (anybody’s) land.”

The letters to abutters of town landings would be the latest effort by the town to expand public water access in Harpswell. Voters last year decided to spend $110,000 to support legal fees in a case over public access to Cedar Beach, one of the only sandy beaches in town.

A Superior Court judge ruled in favor of the advocates in 2014, establishing a public easement on the path leading to the beach. The landowners then appealed the decision to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

The high court heard oral arguments on the case in November 2015, and has not issued a decision.

Use of the sand-and-gravel beach at Mitchell Field, which the town acquired from the U.S. Navy in 2001, has also surged in recent years, thanks in part to a public access guide the town began publishing in 2012.

Multer and committee member Hilton will work on revising the current draft letter before sending it to abutters of town-owned property.

Town Administrator Kristi Eiane said a new version of the letter, and a list of property owners identified by the Town Lands Committee as potential recipients, will be presented to selectmen in a future meeting.

Walter Wuthmann can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or wwuthmann@theforecaster.net. Follow Walter on Twitter: @wwuthmann.

Harpswell recently acquired a small fish house, right, next to the public landing at Graveyard Point. The Town Lands Committee plans to demolish the fish house to increase access to the small boat launch and gravel beach.

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Brunswick/Harpswell reporter for The Forecaster. Bowdoin College grad, San Francisco Bay Area native. Follow for municipal, school, community, and environmental news from the Midcoast.