Potential coastal access point stirs Brunswick debate

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BRUNSWICK — The town has about 66 miles of shoreline, and less than a mile of it is accessible by the public.

So when Brunswick acquired a property on Mere Point Road due to unpaid taxes, some town councilors were eager to explore the potential for public access.

The Town Council’s finance committee on June 16 unanimously recommended placing a 60-day hold on the parcel to prevent anyone from buying it, so they could research whether it could become a new public access point.

But neighbors turned out in force at the council’s June 20 meeting to oppose the move. They say the lot is too small to support public use, too rocky and tidal for swimming, and would be put to better use if sold by the town for revenue.

Advocates for public use, on the other hand, argue that opportunities for increasing coastal access are rare, and should be supported on principle.

The council voted unanimously to take 60 days to vet the property’s potential. And, if Monday night’s meeting is any indication, the just over 4-acre lot will be the subject of much scrutiny.

The parcel

The town acquired the property at 946 Mere Point Road after the owner did not pay the property taxes. The parcel is primarily wooded, and also includes a dilapidated house.

At their June 6 meeting, councilors had a brief discussion about turning the parcel into a public access area before forwarding the question to the finance committee.

In the time since, councilors and town staff have been flooded with emails both supporting and opposing the project, according to Council Chairwoman Sarah Brayman.

“I’ve heard all sorts of things,” she said Monday. “It’s unswimmable, it’s very swimmable, it’s better than Simpson’s Point, it’s worse than Simpson’s Point … I have no idea what is the case.”

Neighbors strongly oppose the idea that the lot could be a good public swimming or picnicking spot.

Arabella Strovink, of Wild Aster Lane, is a direct abutter to the parcel. She said she and her husband Karl would like the town to make it available for private sale.

The town should acquire “proceeds from the sale itself as well as ongoing tax revenue,” she said. In addition, “(the property) is pretty small for parking, and we think there will be a very dear burden on immediate neighbors,” she added.

The real estate website Zillow.com estimates the property is worth about $330,000.

Joan Sutcliffe, of Wild Aster Lane, who lives on the other side, argued that there were already nearby public access points, such as Mere Point Boat Launch.

The spot in question, she said, “has a high, steep rock face that drops directly into shallow water, and just beyond that are ledges … this would not be a great place to swim.”

She urged councilors to “be responsible” and sell the property instead of “needlessly developing another public access to the water.”

Heather Osterfeld, also of Wild Aster Lane, said a group of property owners are being told that a single-home property in their area “can suddenly become a public use facility.”

“How would you feel if your next door neighbor’s property suddenly opened to the public,” she asked councilors. “inserting a public use facility in the midst of a residential neighborhood, whether by the town or a land trust, is unacceptable.”

“It’s unsuitable for recreational water access,” she said, adding that she and her husband had invested their entire savings “into the peace and quiet of our place.”

The wooded parcel is just over 4 acres; the Mere Point Boat Launch down the road, by contrast, is about 7.5 acres.

Steve Kercel, of Brian Drive, which is across town, agreed with neighbors that the town would be better served if the property was sold to a private buyer. “If you need more public access to water there have got to be more practical places to do it than this,” he said.

Neighbors also said if the town does decide to move forward with public access, they would like to serve on an advisory committee to the project.

But some Brunswick residents from outside the Mere Point neighborhood went to bat for the project.

Pete Didisheim, of Hemlock Road, said that increasing access to the water was a priority for Brunswick, as identified in a town open space and recreation task force report published in 2002.

“We have water, water everywhere, but it’s very hard to get to,” he concluded.

Richard Knox, of Simpson’s Point Road, said he has visited the property, and conceded that at low tide the shoreline “muds out.”

“But I can tell you that (it) has water that is swimmable from about half-tide up, and that’s more than enough to make it an extremely popular place,” he said.

“I think it’s very important for the town to consider all options when it comes to public access to the shore,” he added.

Sylvia Stocker, of Braemar Road, wrote in a letter to the council saying, “I believe places of beauty, such as the ocean shore, ought to belong to everyone, not just the privileged few.”

Near the end of public comment, former Councilor Jackie Sartoris, who is Councilor Steve Walker’s wife, said the current debate over the Mere Point parcel reminded her of the controversy over the construction of the Mere Point Boat Launch over a decade ago.

“Public access issues are really hard … I don’t think there are any easy conversations to be had,” she said.

“I had one constituent … who said that I would be the death of her, and her doctor informed her that meeting with me would cause her a heart attack,” she recalled. “Abutter concerns are legitimate … but I just want to ask that you go ahead and take the time to do the due diligence that (this property) really needs.”

Vetting period

Walker, the town councilor, is a strong proponent of exploring the site’s capacity for public access, arguing it could be suited for a small gravel parking lot and benches. He said shore access is key to the “quality of place” that draws new residents to Brunswick.

Councilor Suzan Wilson, however, said she was “skeptical about the piecemeal picking of little tiny parcels” for new public lands. But she also said she was “commit(ted) to search for public access points to the shore.”

“I’m generally on the side with the neighbors right now,” said Councilor John Perreault. “(But) I don’t see anything wrong at this moment to wait the 60 days and see where it goes.”

“My mind is still open to hearing what the committees have to say,” he added.

The question will be reviewed by the Marine Resources Committee, Rivers and Coastal Waters Commission, the Conservation Commission, and the Planning Board, before going back to the full council later this summer.

Corrected June 29: Sylvia Stocker lives on Braemar Road.

Walter Wuthmann can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or wwuthmann@theforecaster.net. Follow Walter on Twitter: @wwuthmann.

The wooded property at 946 Mere Point Road, seen from the water, is being considered for a new public access point in Brunswick.

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Brunswick/Harpswell reporter for The Forecaster. Bowdoin College grad, San Francisco Bay Area native. Follow for municipal, school, community, and environmental news from the Midcoast.