Harpswell Selectmen show willingness to pay Cedar Beach legal costs

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HARPSWELL — The Board of Selectmen reacted favorably Wednesday to a request from the group fighting for public access to a Bailey Island beach for a town contribution of $110,000 to help pay legal fees incurred over the past two years.

Members of Cedar Beach/Cedar Island Supporters filled the conference room at the Town Office Wednesday night to petition selectmen to put an article authorizing the payment in front of Town Meeting.

“There’s no doubt in anybody’s mind that the town wanted to shoulder this along with us,” CB/CIS leader Mike Helfgott said, referring to the voter support Cedar Beach issues have received.

Selectmen showed support for putting the issue to voters, but said they want the town attorney to review the proposed article before they act on it.

But Selectman Elinor Multer also expressed concern about what she called “the public-private intersection” the arrangement must navigate.

In the past two years, through negotiations and court battles, CB/CIS has managed to secure easements from property owners that ensure public access to a portion of Cedar Beach, also known as Robinwood Beach, and the single-track road that leads to it.

Over that time, CB/CIS has incurred approximately $190,000 in legal expenses, according to its board of directors.

In September, the group won a court victory when Cumberland County Superior Court Justice Nancy Mills ruled that a public easement exists on the road to Cedar Beach.

A final judgement in the case is still on hold, pending Mills’ ruling on a motion to clarify whether vehicle or pedestrian access is permitted. And CB/CIS is gearing up for one of the defendants in the case to appeal Mills’ decision to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Helfgott said CB/CIS has raised close to $200,000 in charitable donations, much of it from Harpswell residents, but some donors now expect the town to pay for its share of the cost.

He said legal fees are expected to exceed $220,000 if they have to fight the appeal.

“Every step of the way costs us money,” Helfgott said.

The group’s funding request is half of what voters approved at Town Meeting in 2013, Helfgott pointed out. At the time, the town authorized $220,000 in bonds to secure public rights to Cedar Beach and the road. But it cannot disburse the funds because there is no final ruling in the road case.

“We’re asking for half of what we asked for before,” said Martin Eisenstein, the group’s legal adviser, in an interview outside the meeting.

“We think it’s a very reasonable approach,” Eisenstein said. “But for the appeal, we feel that we would be entitled to the $220,000.”

If approved, much of the town funding would go to unpaid legal expenses, and some may be used to secure public access to other parts of Cedar Beach, he said.

The public now only has rights to a small portion of the beach and nearby Cedar Island, but the group would like to expand the public’s access to the area.

“Whatever money we receive will go only to one purpose,” Eisenstein said. “To provide public access to Cedar Beach and Cedar Island. … That’s our mission, that’s our stated goal, and we we will never deviate from that goal.”

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