Scarborough girds for another beach access dispute

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SCARBOROUGH — A sandy Pine Point path that meanders through a grove of low shrubs and trees before opening up to a panoramic view of sky, sea grass and ocean is at the center of a new dispute over beach access.

Charles Gendron wants the town to dissolve its ownership of the 50-foot right of way and beach path so he can expand his property and fix his house or build a new one.

But some neighbors are balking at the request to change Avenue 2, a “paper” street that extends from King Street to Pine Point Beach between Gendron’s house and the Gables by the Sea condominiums.

“We want the council to defend (its) ownership,” Susan Hamill said. “(Town councilors) get elected to be stewards of the town’s assets. It’s our asset.”

A paper street is one that exists on a map, but has never been fully incorporated as a usable street. In the last decade, the town has discontinued two of its paper streets: Avenue 5 in 2006 and Avenue 6 in 2007. 

In the 1970s, the state urged all municipalities to dissolve their paper streets over the next two decades. In 1997, when municipal ownership of paper streets was due to expire if those streets weren’t officially incorporated, towns and cities could choose to give up the streets or request a 20-year extension to decide which streets to keep.

Cape Elizabeth, for example, opted for the 20-year extension, which expires in 2017. The town created an inventory of streets to give up or incorporate. 

Scarborough, by neither incorporating Avenue 2 nor opting for an extension in 1997, essentially forfeited its right to retain ownership of the street if an abutting property owner – such as Gendron – asks the town to discontinue the public right of way.

The town could have a defense of its argument for an easement, since the area has been used as a public walking path for several decades.

But if the Town Council approves, discontinuing Avenue 2 would divide ownership of the 50-foot-wide right of way down the middle – 25 feet would go to Gendron and 25 feet would go to the condo association.

Town officials hope the path can remain a public way, Town Manager Tom Hall said Monday.

While the town’s attorney is still in talks with Gendron’s attorney, Hall said, Gendron has “indicated from day one that he would certainly be willing to continue letting the public access the beach,” he said. 

Gendron did not respond to messages left with a representative at his Portland office.

But in a document provided to Hall, Jim Fisher of Northeast Civil Solutions, an engineering firm working on Gendron’s behalf, said that in exchange for the discontinuance of Avenue 2, Gendron will “grant a permanent easement to the town to secure by deed the right of an ingress/egress easement for the public access to the beach.”

“For the record, Charlie is NOT interested in cutting off access to the public, as he currently lives in the neighborhood and has no issues with the access that exists today,” Fisher wrote. 

But in a neighborhood where public access to the beach has been reduced by private development, some residents say they don’t trust Gendron or the process.

In 2009, after a contentious, protracted debate, the end of Depot Street and an adjacent strip of beach property were traded to the owners of the former Lighthouse Motel for a strip of parking spaces and shared beach access. Opponents argued that the town’s action valued private ownership over public access, while town staff insisted it would create safer access to the beach, which would also be better maintained. 

Mo Erickson, a Pine Point Association member who grew up on 9th Street, on Monday said Gendron’s Avenue 2 proposal “is very discouraging.”

A viable alternative, her sister, Susan Hamill said, is asking town officials to fight to retain the right of way and use the space to create a modest park.

Hall said it’s frustrating to have residents believe that he or town councilors would want to do anything to diminish beach access. 

“There seems to be this feeling in parts of the community that we’re not understanding the value of public access,” he said. But that “couldn’t be any further from the truth. We’re looking to figure out how to negotiate the very best offer for the public.”

Town Council Chairman Bill Donovan agreed.

“I think public beach access as it has existed on Avenue 2 for the last 100 years should be maintained,” he said Wednesday.  “It’s very important, and it would be my view, as one of seven councilors, to push as hard as possible to maintain the public access.” 

But Erickson said revoking publicly owned access points and transferring them to private owners has to stop.
 
“Do we have to tar everything in order to (to prove) that we use it?,” she said.  

Alex Acquisto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or aacquisto@theforecaster.net. Follow Alex on Twitter: @AcquistoA

Avenue 2, a paper street off King Street in Scarborough, has been used for decades as a path to Pine Point Beach.

Avenue 2 in Scarborough, between Charles Gendron’s 37 King St. home, left, and the Gables by the Sea condominiums, as seen from Pine Point Beach.

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South Portland and Scarborough reporter for The Forecaster. Graduate of Western Kentucky University and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Alex can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106.