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Harpswell to vote on beach easement, with new conditions

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Harpswell to vote on beach easement, with new conditions

HARPSWELL — Voters will decide whether to accept an easement for Cedar Beach at the annual Town Meeting on March 15, after the Board of Selectmen added a last-minute warrant article on Wednesday.

But advocates of reopening access to the once-popular Bailey Island beach, who negotiated for the easement with property owners in a court-ordered mediation session, said three extra conditions that were added to the warrant article without their approval could harm the cause.

Frustration and anger was audible during Wednesday's nearly two-hour special board meeting as representatives from Cedar Beach/Cedar Island Supporters pleaded with selectmen to remove the conditions, which were added after the group had its last closed-door negotiation with selectmen.

There was only standing room left in the town meeting room, which was mostly filled by CB/CIS members and other supporters of restoring beach access.

"I wish (three extra conditions) had been brought before us before just now because, to me, this is something we could have worked out," Mike Helfgott, president of CB/CIS, said. "... I'm trying to mind my words here, but I don't think it was all that nice to spring it on us at this last minute."

Selectmen did not budge on the issue after consulting with Town Attorney Sally Daggett several times during the public portion of the meeting and in an unplanned executive session that preceded the board's vote on the warrant article.

The new conditions require road access to Cedar Beach, which CB/CIS is seeking in a lawsuit against another set of property owners; release of restrictions on the beach by an abutting property owner, and acquisition of an additional easement for the adjacent Cedar Island from that same property owner.

All three conditions must be satisfied before the town can accept the easement, which Helfgott and others said could harm efforts to restore beach access.

CB/CIS representatives said it is important for the town to acquire the Cedar Beach easement as soon as voters approve it because it would ensure that one of the two hurdles required to open pedestrian access is cleared. In the meantime, they said, it would also allow people to access the beach by boat.

"We've got a provision that gets us something," attorney David Bertoni, representing CB/CIS, said. "It gives us a foothold. It gives us the best shot that we can have abut getting the next piece. That's a negotiation issue. It's a common sense issue, too, because the crown jewel is the beach and not the road."

CB/CIS and selectmen had already negotiated a set of terms and conditions for use of the beach, which were originally determined by the beach access group and Jonathan and Rachel Aspatore, the property owners who agreed to offer an easement that provides access to Cedar Beach.

But Selectmen Chairwoman Elinor Multer said there isn't enough justification for accepting the Cedar Beach easement until access by road is assured. Otherwise, she said, the town would be subject to obligations and financial implications, set by the terms and conditions, for the small number of people who can access the beach by boat. 

"It's a big liability to take on for a very small number of people," Multer said.

The major obligations and financial implications of the agreement include the requirement of a hired beach monitor, which selectmen said they would want to monitor the beach on a more frequent schedule than suggested by CB/CIS.

They also include a dispute resolution clause, which could allow the Aspatores to be awarded $10,000 or more in liquidated damages if an arbitrator finds the town repeatedly failed to uphold the terms and conditions for use of the beach.

Some of the terms and conditions for beach use include the prohibition of motor vehicles, pets, rowdy or inappropriate behavior, public indecency, littering, fires, storage of recreation equipment, and improvements to the easement area.

The terms and conditions for use of the beach were originally reached by CB/CIS and the Aspatores during a mediation session last month ordered by Cumberland County Superior Court. The group had filed a lawsuit against the Aspatores last August seeking a court order to declare that an easement exists on their parcel of land that connects the private portion of Cedar Beach Road to Cedar Beach.

CB/CIS is also suing Charles and Sally Abrahamson seeking a court order to declare that a prescriptive easement exists on their privately owned portion of Cedar Beach Road. The lawsuit is currently awaiting a trial later this year.

The Abrahamsons closed access to the road in September 2011, which residents had been using to reach Cedar Beach for decades, after an attempt by a group that preceded CB/CIS to buy a prescriptive easement on the road failed.

Attorney Marty Eisenstein, who represents CB/CIS, said the agreement with the Aspatores is "subject to the approval by the town and acceptance of their easement by the March 31 mediation deadline.

"Otherwise the case resets and we start at square one," he said. "We're happy to litigate it, but not so happy because we think we have a great deal here and there's no reason to hold it up, pending the Cedar Beach Road case."

Eisenstein said the public deserves a right to vote on accepting the easement, without the restrictions set by the three extra conditions.

C. Matthew Rich, a selectman candidate for the March 15 election, said he agrees with the way the selectmen are handling the issue, but suggested that CB/CIS should consider collecting signatures for a citizen-initiated referendum. 

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