Harpswell residents renew fight for beach access

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HARPSWELL — In 1937, Pam Johnson was only 3 years old when she first stepped onto Cedar Beach with her family. After continuing the tradition for many years, it eventually became a place where she raised her own.

“It was all special,” Johnson said Tuesday. “It was just something we looked forward to everyday.”

Now 79, Johnson said she will probably never step on the beach again.

But her children, her grandchildren and future generations might get another chance, after the Board of Selectmen approved a proposal last week that could let voters help restore access to Cedar Beach.

At the board’s Jan. 10 meeting, a new group called Cedar Beach/Cedar Island Supporters asked the board to put the question of reopening access to Cedar Beach on the warrant for the March 9 Town Meeting.

The question, as proposed by CB/CIS, specifically asks the town to spend up to $220,000 “for the purpose of acquiring, providing and maintaining access to Cedar Beaches and Cedar Island on Bailey Island.”

With a few caveats, the board unanimously voted to consider doing so, which means residents of Harpswell could vote within two months on whether they want the town to acquire access to the beach.

But reopening access to Cedar Beach won’t be as easy as just voting for it.

In 2011, Charles and Sally Abrahamson closed off the end of Cedar Beach Road, for which the couple owns – and it effectively blocked access to Cedar Beach (also known as Robinhood Beach) located near Route 24 on the northeast side of Bailey Island.

The question of access to Cedar Beach had been on many residents’ minds for a few years because the road leading to it is owned by the Abrahamson’s.

And the town got close, but ultimately failed, to acquire a right of way in a 2011 vote that was spurred by another group that advocated for the beach’s open access.

But with nearly two years gone since then, the cards are being played a little differently.

CB/CIS President Michale Helfgott said there are two main differences that separate his group’s attempt to open access on the beach from past ones.

For one, CB/CIS is working on the foundation created by past groups, like Friends of Cedar Island. Second, the group has enlisted attorney Martin Eisenstein, of Brann & Isaacson in Lewiston, who is suing the Abrahamsons on their behalf. The attorney also has entered negotiations with other nearby property owners.

Eisenstein is representing CS/CIS on a pro bono, or no-fee, basis.

“The people two years ago didn’t have Marty doing all this fantasitic research for them. He’s done a lot of leg work,” Helfgott said. “He’s doing it for the islanders – for those around today and for those before them.”

Eisenstein filed a lawsuit against the Abrahamsons on Oct. 24, 2012, in Cumberland County Superior Court, that seeks a declaration that the public has a prescriptive easement on Cedar Beach Road – an action that would allow anyone to pass on through to the beach.

“(Cedar Beach supporters) would like to pass over property owned by the neighbors like they have done since 1930,” Eisenstein said.

But to fully make that work, Eisenstein said the group needs assistance from the town.

And that comes in the form of the Cedar Beach warrant article, as proposed by CB/CIS, which the town may vote on at the March 9 Town Meeting if the Board of Selectmen finalizes it at their next meeting.

Town Administrator Kristi Eiane said since the Board of Selectmen have approved consideration of the motion, they will now send it to the Town Attorney to create the official language for the possible warrant article.

Eiane said that means the official language of the Cedar Beach warrant article might come back to the selectmen as early as their Jan. 24 meeting, where they will possibly decide on whether to put it on the warrant.

“I’m interested to see how the attorney will deal with that,” Eiane said.

But because CS/CIS is litigating with the Abrahamsons and negotiating with others, the language of the Cedar Beach warrant article wouldn’t immediately allow the town to retain access to the beach.

Instead, voters could be asked to vote for appropriating or borrowing a total of $220,000 for the purpose of acquiring public access through Cedar Beach Road, Eisenstein said.

And then, if voters voted for the expenditure, the town would only release the money if there are documents that prove access has been granted, either through litigation or negotiation.

Eiane said those conditions are similar to the warrant article voters acted on in 2011. The town voted to set money aside for the purpose of opening access to Cedar Beach, but the conditions were not met within the time allotted.

“We had the authorization to borrow it,” Eiane said, “but we didn’t because we weren’t able to fulfill the requirements.  We weren’t able to close any deals before the year-end.”

Richard Abbondanza, of Hopkinson & Abbondanza, represents the Abrahamsons. He said they “haven’t been able to come to financial terms (with CB/CIS), but we hope to negotiate terms that work with Charles and Sally.”

Abbondanza said the Abrahamsons are willing to work something out, but they’re disputing the lawsuit.

“First, we don’t think (the plantiffs) met the criteria for granting (a public easement), plus we don’t know where the public will go,” Abbondanza said.

He says this is because Cedar Beach only has an easement for Harpswell residents, which means the beach isn’t technically meant for the public. 

Abbondanza said this is why the Abrahamsons don’t want public access – it would be too busy for an area that has no nearby parking,  and access for the public never existed since it was always just for Harpswell residents.

Eisenstein said his party would “prefer to negotiate on reasonable terms.”

“And what that means depends on the party,” Eisenstein said. “If we can’t reach an agreement on reasonable terms, we will litigate.”

Eisenstein said the purpose of negotiating with other land owners around the road is to “make sure public use of the property is in a responsible fashion” and “try to minimize disruptions in their life.”

Johnson said her support for opening access to Cedar Beach is “all sentiment.”

“I was there at least five days a week (with my four children) and they (now) range from 57 and down to 43,” she said.

Johnson said her son, in particular, who now lives in Florida, would give anything to open access to Cedar Beach again. Johnson recalled that when he was young, he used to go there to take a break from the world.

“If he was sad or happy, that’s where he would go to do his thinking,” Johnson said. “I have a letter he wrote in fourth grade – that was his special place.”

That special place now might get its own spot on the Town Meeting warrant.

“What a wonderful place to bring children up,” Johnson said. “It was just relaxing. My kids learned how to swim down there. I will probably never go down there again, but at least my children will, maybe.”

Dylan Martin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or dmartin@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DylanLJMartin.

Sidebar Elements

Pam Johnson in a 1963 photo with her daughter Wendy at Cedar Beach in Harpswell.

Cedar Beach/Cedar Island Supporters filled the room at the Jan. 10 Harpswell Board of Selectmen meeting to ask the town to help reopen access to Cedar Beach.