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Shrinking Crescent? Beach lease in Cape Elizabeth expires in 6 months

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Shrinking Crescent? Beach lease in Cape Elizabeth expires in 6 months

CAPE ELIZABETH — When residents and tourists return to Crescent Beach State Park next spring, they could find a considerably smaller beach to enjoy.

One-hundred acres smaller.

In about six months, the lease of park land from the Sprague Corp. to the Maine Department of Conservation will expire. When it does, 100 acres will revert back to private ownership.

The two sides are renegotiating and have until April 2010 to decide what will happen to the now-public land.

Sprague Corp. President Seth Sprague said his great-grandfather Phineas Warren Sprague set up the corporation in 1920. Forty years later, his grandfather Phineas Shaw Sprague established Crescent Beach with a combination of Sprague-owned land and gifts from other property owners.

By 1966, much of the development was competed by the state, he said, and Crescent Beach State Park was opened to the public with a parking lot, access roads and buildings.

"Preservation is important to the corporation," Sprague said. "My great-grandfather and grandfather preserved the land for the enjoyment of the family, not development."

Will Harris, director of the Bureau of Parks and Land, said of the park's 242 acres, 100 acres are owned by the Sprague family and leased to the state for $1 under the the 50-year lease that expires next year. The state owns all the roads through the park, the control station where visitors pay entrance fees, the concession area, the restrooms and bathhouse.

The park's popularity is unquestioned, and increasing. About 91,000 people entered this year, compared with 80,000 last year, according to the Department of Conservation. Day-use rates vary from free for resident seniors to $6.50 for out-of-state visitors, and Harris said state revenue this fiscal year was about $91,000.The money goes to the park general fund for maintenance and upkeep of parks around the state.  

Jeanne Curran, director of public information for the Department of Conservation, said the state park is very heavily used and even with a month of rain in June, day-use increased nearly 14 percent this year.

"The numbers are impressive," she said. "It is amazing how we've bounced back. People really enjoy this area."

Sprague said he and the state are "pounding away at negotiations," which could be extended past the April deadline. He declined to discuss what Sprague Corp. would do with the land if negotiations on a new lease are unsuccessful.

According to town assessor Matthew Sturgis, the property has not been taxed since 1960 when the lease was signed. He said the assessed value of the property, which includes land and buildings, is $16.6 million. If taxed, the annual cost to Sprague would be $292,000.

"Sprague Corp. is the No. 1 taxpayer in town," Sturgis said. "They own about 2,000 acres in Cape Elizabeth, or nearly 20 percent."

Harris said the state wants to continue to have use of the land.  

"All these negotiations are in good faith," he said. "We are in active negotiations with the idea we will have a deal set by April."

But even if the lease is not renewed, there will still be nearly 150 acres of state-owned land at Crescent Beach.

"We are trying to find a way to keep it as it remains, but if not, there will continue to be a state park at Crescent Beach," Harris said. "The family did a nice thing for the state and their land is a wonderful addition to a very popular state park."

"We'd like to continue the lease," he said, "but whatever happens, we are committed to keeping the park public. We have a real interest in keeping the beach viable and open. It is clearly something people count on."  

Amy Anderson can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or aanderson@theforecaster.net