The Universal Notebook: The battle for Cedar Beach Road

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Route 24 in Harpswell is lined with signs, both professionally printed and hand-lettered, sounding the call to Save Cedar Beach and Save Cedar Beach Road.

If there is opposition to this public access campaign, it is not evident. Where beach access controversies such as those at Moody Beach in Wells and Goose Rocks Beach in Kennebunkport have tended to pit out-of-state waterfront owners against out-of-state tourists, the Cedar Beach dispute seems to pit a couple of Cedar Beach cottage owners against their Bailey Island neighbors, year-round and seasonal.

Down at the Land’s End gift shop, I asked a cashier what all the Cedar Beach signs were about and I was told, “The beach is safe, but now they are trying to take the road.” And thereby hangs a tale.

Where Route 24 crosses the historic cribwork bridge, if you look left you will see the Cedar Beach battle zone, a short crescent of sand stretching from Charles and Sally Abrahamson’s rambling cottage to Betsy Atkins’ seaside estate. The Abrahamsons and Ms. Atkins are allies in the battle over the beach.

In 2010, the Abrahamsons commissioned an appraisal report that found a potential loss of market value to their property of $945,000 if continuing public access was allowed to Cedar Beach and Cedar Beach Road. The Abrahamsons then asked the town of Harpswell to pay that amount for a public easement. The town came up with a figure closer to $200,000 and it’s been pretty much game on ever since.

Earlier this year, the Cedar Beach/Cedar Island Supporters, a group of several hundred people who have raised some $167,000 for the cause, managed to broker an easement on the beach with the Aspatore family. Joan Lester, the Abrahamsons’ neighbor across the lane, also has no problem with the public use of the beach. She owns a major part of the beach, but there is a “Save Cedar Beach” sign on her lawn.

“Anyone who purchased property on this beach knew it was shared,” Lester told me when I wandered down the narrow dirt lane to see what all the fuss was about.

Conflicting signs at the end of Cedar Beach Road speak to the matter in dispute. The path to the beach is blocked by a sign that reads “Beach Access by Water Only.” Ten feet the other side of that sign is one erected by the town, welcoming visitors to the Cedar Beach easement area.

Maine people don’t post their land and they understand that, Massachusetts colonial ordinances notwithstanding, the tradition in Maine has always been that the intertidal zone is public. You don’t close off access to the shore to your neighbors. CB/CIS sued the Abrahamsons to establish that a century of public use had created a public prescriptive easement to access the beach over Cedar Beach Road.

Superior Court Justice Nancy Mills heard the case earlier this year and her decision is expected shortly. But regardless of her ruling there is bound to be an appeal by the losing side. Even with the status of the road in legal limbo, Betsy Atkins purchased a 1,000-foot section of it from the Abrahamsons this summer with the intention of keeping it private.

Betsy Atkins is apparently a billionaire businesswoman. I have never heard of any of the companies she has been involved with, but she has written a book on corporate governance and now seems to run a venture capital firm out of Coral Gables, Florida.

Atkins has managed to alienate many of her neighbors, both by fighting to expunge public access to the beach and by shooing people off the beach, erecting tall fences and surrounding her cottage at the end of Cragmoor Road with security cameras. A big, bold sign at the top of Cragmoor Road declares “Dead End, No Turnaround, No Beach Access, Thank You for Respecting Our Privacy.” It almost seems as though Atkins is intent upon turning her end of Cedar Beach Road into a gated community.

I get the impression from signs, conversations and the media that a lot of folks on Bailey’s Island wish Atkins would either become a little more neighborly or just go away. Should she prevail in court and eventually manage to close Cedar Beach Road to public access, I’d be surprised if all the fences and security cameras in the world could protect her property from what is euphemistically referred to as “island justice.”

I’m not sure where Atkins thinks she is, but it’s not Coral Gables. And me-first is not how we treat one another in the great state of Maine.

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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.