Easement in hand for Harpswell beach, trial nears on road access
HARPSWELL — One of two obstacles for achieving town-wide access to waterfront land popularly known as Cedar Beach was cleared last week, when the Board of Selectmen accepted an easement deed that grants access to the area.
For now, however, the only way to access the Bailey Island beach is by water, or if a visitor is escorted by a property owner who is authorized to use the private portion of Cedar Beach Road that leads to the connecting parcel.
The road to the beach, formally known as Robinhood Beach, will remain closed unless a court decides in a lawsuit filed in October 2012 by Cedar Beach/Cedar Island Supporters that there is a prescriptive easement for town-wide access.
A trial in Cumberland County Superior Court is set to begin April 29, according to Marty Eisenstein, an attorney representing CB/CIS, after the beach group failed to reach a mediated settlement earlier this month with Charles and Sally Abrahamson, owners of the dead-end portion of Cedar Beach Road.
If the lawsuit is successful, a prescriptive easement would be one of the last things needed to allow full access to the beach. It would also allow the town to appropriate up to $220,000 in bonds for the purpose of securing that access.
Richard Abbondanza, a Portland-based attorney representing the Abrahamsons, did not respond to a request for comment.
Eisenstein, when asked in February about a Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruling that 29 property owners could restrict public access to a Kennebunkport beach, said "we have developed a strong set of facts to argue for (a Cedar Beach) easement."
In the meantime, CB/CIS and the town are separately working on other stipulations required to make full access possible.
For instance, Eisenstein said, CB/CIS has obtained from Joan Lester, a neighbor of the Abrahamsons and Aspatores, a release of her claims or rights over the Aspatore's parcel.
In addition, Eisenstein said, Lester has provided a letter of permission allowing use of her portion of Cedar Beach, which borders the Asaptores' portion, and allowing use of Cedar Island, which she co-owns with the Aspatores. The attorney said this permission would likely be renewed on a yearly basis, but details aren't final.
On the town side, selectmen at their April 3 meeting accepted an easement deed for the property owned by Jonathan and Rachel Aspatore, after it was authorized by a majority vote at last month's Town Meeting following a lengthy and contentious debate about extra stipulations that were ultimately rejected.
Before their regular meeting began, selectmen discussed how the town will pay for and implement signs, a contracted beach monitor, a mechanism for identifying authorized users of the beach, and improved parking on Robinhood Road, as stipulated by the terms and conditions for beach use.
The estimated cost for a beach monitor ranges from nearly $3,000 to almost $5,000, based on how often the town wants the monitor to be on duty. The estimated cost for improving parking on Robinhood Road is around $40,000.
Town Administrator Kristi Eiane said staff are expected to have a more complete estimate of costs to selectmen by the board's April 17 meeting. She said any proposed expenditures would have to be approved by voters, and if selectmen want that to happen by secret ballot on June 10, they would have to have ballot items ready by April 25.
CB/CIS was responsible for striking a deal for the easement deed with the Aspatores in a mediated settlement in February, as part of a lawsuit it began against the property owners last year. The 16 terms and conditions were a key factor in making the easement deal possible.
The agreement would establish visual boundaries to prevent beach-goers from trespassing on other parts of the Aspatores' property. It also limits use of the easement to town residents, non-resident taxpayers, and their guests, and asks the town to hire someone to monitor the easement from July 1 through Labor Day.
Rules in the agreement include the prohibition of motor vehicles, pets, inappropriate behavior, public indecency, littering, fires, storage of recreation equipment, and improvements to the easement area.
The agreement also has a dispute resolution clause that would allow the Aspatores to take any disputes over the town's obligation to enforce the rules to an arbitrator, who could force the town to pay the Aspatores $10,000 or more.
Selectman Elinor Multer, who argued against accepting an easement deed for Cedar Beach before gaining access to the road, said she is still concerned about a cart-before-the-horse situation.
"What I'm concerned about is spending money for such a small number of people to access the beach," she said. "We have all the vulnerability" with the beach's terms and conditions, she said, but without full access.
However, Multer said, the town will continue to work to meet its obligations associated with maintaining the easement deed and its rules.