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Public access to Crescent Beach State Park in Cape Elizabeth at risk after lease talks stall

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Public access to Crescent Beach State Park in Cape Elizabeth at risk after lease talks stall

CAPE ELIZABETH — Bud Hanson and his wife, Georgia, have been coming to Crescent Beach State Park with friends for close to six decades.

"They call us the 'gray-haired group'," Hanson said. "It's a wonderful gift we have here. The state keeps it in great shape."

But now the Hansons, along with the rest of the public, may be in danger of losing control of, and access to, more than half of the park, after lease negotiations with the land owner reached an impasse.

Although the state and Sprague Corp., which owns 100 acres of the 187-acre park, haven't made any final decisions, both sides have backed away from the negotiating table, the director of the state Bureau of Parks and Lands, Will Harris, said.

"It's true that (negotiations) have slowed down some, but both sides are still acting in good faith," Harris said. "It's a tough nut to crack when financial times are tough, to come up with a substantial amount for an important piece of property like this."

The state's 50-year lease of the land from Sprague expired in 2010. The lease has since been extended twice, in one-year intervals. The current extension expires next April, but a decision has to be made by August, Harris said.

The state is now interested in buying the land, he said, but with limited budget flexibility, it's not clear if the parties could agree to that.

Cape Elizabeth resident Seth Sprague, president of Sprague Corp., said the privately owned company doesn't want to sell the land and would like to find a way to continue with another lease extension.

"It's a hard time for the state to be dealing with this, with the budgets being so tight," he said. "We're going to do everything we can to keep the park open to the public, and if not, we'll have to figure out some other way to do it."

The price tag on the beach is also uncertain, because the state has yet to complete an appraisal. And although a state appraisal might value the property differently, Town Assessor Matt Sturgis said Cape Elizabeth found the property in 2011 to be worth nearly $8 million.

The state has already begun surveying the park along Route 77 between Inn By the Sea and Richmond Terrace, looking for a new entrance in anticipation of failed negotiations, Harris said.

Town Manager Mike McGovern said the state's actions are troubling and that he hopes something can be worked out.

"The fact the state is exploring the option (of another entrance) is an indication that we all ought to be concerned about," McGovern said. "We have the potential for losing a public area and having less than an ideal entry to a state park."

If no agreement can be reached, Sprague said, the land will remain open to the public. But he would not speculate about how a shared public-private beach would operate.

The alternate entrance would run parallel to the western side of the beach, down a narrow maintenance road, connecting to the state side of the parking lot. During the peak seasons this would mean hundreds of cars travelling just a few yards from the beach every day.

Rauni Kew, public relations manager at Inn by the Sea, said this plan worries her because it would inhibit guest's access to the beach, and have an impact on the area's delicate ecosystem.

"We've worked hard to restore two acres of this area by removing invasive species and to restore the habitat for the endangered New England cottontail," she said. "Our concern would be that with so many cars so close to the ocean and sand dunes, that it would have a negative impact on the wildlife."

Other Crescent Beach-area business owners said they are not concerned about who owns or operates the land, as long as people can still get to the beach.

"The Spragues do a really good job of land management," Kettle Cove Creamery & Cafe owner Mark Pendarvis said. "If it's sunny and there's access to the beach, it's good for ice cream, whoever owns it."

In addition to owning land on Crescent Beach, Sprague Corp. also owns a section of Scarborough Beach, near Black Point Road. The Sprague Corp.'s parent company, Black Point Corp., met ardent opposition early this year when it proposed a parking lot expansion near the beach. The plans were later dropped, citing lack of economic benefit for the corporation.

The Crescent Beach park, which was established in the 1960s, was initially leased by the state at a cost of $1. Since then, Crescent Beach has been a favorite of beach-goers due to its easily accessible sand, abundant parking, calm tide and overall beauty.

Anne Blake, of Windham, said she brings her family to Crescent Beach because parking is reliable and the beach is safe for her kids.

"In the summer, we come here to picnic and climb on the rocks, dig for crabs in seaweed. It's what we did as kids," she said. "It's not cheap to come here ... but there's not many state parks or beaches like it."

The Hansons, who live in Scarborough and are now in their 80s, said they come to the beach nearly every day from May to September, and they don't worry about the cost.

"We're over 65, so we get in any state park in Maine for free," Bud Hanson said, smiling.

Georgia Hanson said they've been coming to Crescent Beach for a long time and prefer it over Scarborough Beach, which is closer to home.

"We used to come here when we were young, before it was even a park, before the entrance was built. None of these buildings were here," she said, pointing toward the restrooms and snack area. "We would like to keep the beach the way it is; we don't want it to change."

Will Graff can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or wgraff@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @W_C_Graff.

Crescent Beach State Park, Cape Elizabeth, Maine