Maine high court rules for Cumberland in beach property dispute

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CUMBERLAND — The Maine Supreme Judicial Court on Jan. 26 upheld a lower court decision and dismissed claims against the town by some heirs to a Foreside Road beach property.

In a separate ruling the same day, the Law Court stopped short of dismissing the heirs’ related claims against the Chebeague and Cumberland Land Trust.

“Except with respect to the (Merrill P. Robbins) Estate’s breach of contract claim, we agree with the Superior Court that the Estate lacks standing, and we affirm the dismissal,” the justices said.

Both rules can be seen at courts.maine.gov/opinions_orders/supreme/publishedopinions.shtml.

Members of the Robbins family who filed the lawsuit in December 2014 are the heirs of the late Phillips and Marion Payson, who owned a Casco Bay estate at 179 Foreside Road. Bateman Partners and Peter Anastos in December 2014 purchased the property from Spears Hill LLC, which represents the family of the late Marion Payson.

Soon after purchasing the property, Bateman sold a parcel – now called Broad Cove Reserve – to Cumberland for $3 million. The town’s purchase was intended to provide beach access and other public uses, and includes 2,200 feet of shoreline and a 200-foot pier.

The heirs sued the town and land trust over the town’s proposed use of the property. The land trust has been the property’s steward since the 1997 easement was established.

“From town officials’ perspective, we had no doubt from the beginning that Cumberland’s decision to provide public assess to the Payson property was the right one,” Town Council Chairman George Turner said Jan. 27. “The supreme court has vindicated the legitimacy of Cumberland’s perspective on the merits once and for all.”

Superior Court Justice Nancy Mills dismissed the case in 2015, ruling the plaintiff “lacks standing to bring the claims and the claims are not fit for judicial decision.”

Some of the heirs appealed her decision to the high court.

The Superior Court had supported the town’s Board of Adjustment and Appeals’ finding that the proposed use was allowed as a “municipal use” in Cumberland’s Low Density Residential district, the supreme court ruling noted, adding that “because the plain language of the Cumberland Zoning Ordinance supports the Board’s interpretation, we affirm.”

But the court’s ruling in the case of the land trust was less straightforward.

The 2014 lawsuit argued that the land trust’s support of the town’s use “is a breach of its obligation as holder of the conservation easement and its obligations to the grantors, plaintiff, and the Payson family,” adding that the land trust “has failed to enforce the terms of the conservation easement and such failure … has caused and will continue to cause harm to plaintiff.”

Concerning the breach of contract claim, the Law Court said, “The Land Trust, ‘(i)n agreeing to hold the Conservation Easement … represented that it would enforce the restrictions contained therein.'”

Because of that, the ruling continued, “we cannot say that the Estate, claiming to be a successor in interest to the contract, has no standing to sue the Trust, which is also a successor. The record at this stage is insufficient for us to identify with precision what agreement the Estate alleges has been breached.”

In a statement Jan. 26, land trust President Penny Asherman said the organization is “pleased with the Law Court’s decision today affirming the lower court ruling that the Payson family heirs lack standing under the conservation easement statute to bring a claim against the Trust and the Town of Cumberland.”

She added that the trust “is pursuing further clarification with its attorneys on a remaining claim in the lawsuit which is not yet resolved, and which the Trust anticipates will be dismissed as a matter of law in further proceedings.”

Scott Anderson, the attorney representing the heirs, expressed disappointment with the outcome on behalf of his clients in an interview Jan. 27.

“We’re concerned both about the ability to ensure the enforcement of this easement, as well as what this case means for enforcement of other easements within the state of Maine,” he said.

Anderson noted that the Law Court said while a portion of the litigation could not proceed, the breach of contract claim could continue.

“The family is still evaluating the decision, to figure out what their next steps might be,” the attorney said, adding should the heirs opt to maintain the case against the land trust, the matter would go back to Superior Court.

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court on Jan. 26 upheld a lower-court ruling in a lawsuit filed against the town by some of the heirs to the former Payson beachfront property.

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A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.