The Universal Notebook: Public spirit on Scarborough Beach

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Scarborough Beach is my favorite place in all the world. I started going there 50 years ago when old Mrs. Jordan used to sit by the rickety bridge in her beach wagon collecting parking fees. Look for my ashes to wash up on the sands there one of these days. I do not take threats to it lightly.

So you might assume I’d be opposed to the Black Point Beach Park the Sprague Corp. has proposed there. I am not. Quite to the contrary, I applaud the public-spiritedness of the Sprague Corp. in offering to create more and better public access to the most beautiful beach in Maine.

The Black Point Beach Park proposal has been met with predictable NIMBYism from self-interested neighbors, the condo dwellers of the Atlantic House complex and the old money cottagers of the Prouts Neck summer colony. But the unwashed public, you and me, should be thrilled and grateful that public access may continue to trump private privilege on Scarborough Beach.

The Sprague Corp., 68 descendants of Phineas W. Sprague and their spouses, own 2,200 acres along the Cape Elizabeth and Scarborough shore and, to their everlasting credit, they are willing to share it. Crescent Beach State Park was created on Sprague land back in 1960. For years, Scarborough Beach State Park was just a 66-foot strip of state-owned land that gave access to beach actually owned by the Sprague family. Since 1993, the Sprague Corp. has managed the state park and, in 1999, it sold the park to the state.

Anyone who, like myself, has a season pass to Scarborough Beach knows that the parking shortage and resultant traffic backup on Black Point Road has become an issue on hot summer days in recent years. The upper lot fills, the lower lot fills, the overflow lot across the street fills, and, when the 410 parking spots are full, cars cue up along the busy road to wait their turn.

To alleviate this problem, the Sprague Corp. proposed a 370-car grass lot with snack bar and bathrooms on 62 acres just north of Scarborough Beach State Park. The town granted the special exemption permit required and was promptly sued by the furious forces of the status quo.

Opponents of the park would have us believe they are concerned about preserving habitat for piping plover and New England cottontails, but there are no rabbits on that parcel of land now and no plovers nested on Scarborough Beach last year. What opponents are really concerned about is preserving their privacy and privilege. I was once thrown out of Prouts Neck by an old battle-ax who was the self-appointed defender of this privacy and privilege, so I know whereof I speak.

The Sprague Corp. could have proposed building a dozen homes or two dozen condos on its land, a far more lucrative way to go and one we can assume the Atlantic House and Prouts Neck gentry would have applauded. Instead, the Spragues, traitors to their class, proposed a public park.

From where I sit (in a beach chair to the left of the beach path and to the right of the lifeguard tower) it looks as though everyone will win when Black Point Beach Park is approved, except perhaps the NIMBY neighbors.

The public will get more and better access to a very special place. The town will see its Comprehensive Plan, which calls for more shoreland access, realized. The Sprague Corp. will get a revenue stream to help maintain their property holdings that, in turn, preserve open space. And the folks at Prouts Neck will see traffic congestion along Black Point Road relieved.

The farmer who tills the Sprague land will gain a source of water that will open up more Sprague fields to cultivation. The piping plovers, should they return to nest, will benefit from greater management and the prohibition against dogs that will come with the park. And the New England cottontails will have three acres of habit restored, though a whole herd of them seem quite content, thank you very much, living on Sprague land just across the Spurwink River in Cape Elizabeth.

Hats off to the Sprague family. In a day and age when the common good is regularly rejected and ridiculed by the self-satisfied, self-important, self-interested squires of the status quo, the Spragues (at least the branch of the family that inherited Phineas W.’s land) have remained civic-minded, public-spirited and willing to share the wealth.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Yarmouth. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.

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