Yarmouth's island 'paper streets' under review

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YARMOUTH — After 20 years, some streets that officially exist only on town maps of Cousins Island and Littlejohn Island are back under scrutiny.

The last time these so-called paper streets were under debate was 1997.

A paper street is a “proposed roadway shown on a plan of development that was never fully built or used as a public street, but remains an ‘incipient right’ of the Town to take over as a town way at some time in the future,” according to a notice to property owners on Cousins Island and Littlejohn Island published by the Yarmouth Town Council last October.

Paper streets have existed in some Maine communities for more than a century, sometimes without any legal definition. The statute that now governs them was put in place in 1971; the Legislature created further boundaries in 1987.

Under the most recent law, the public would be required to vacate the streets either 15 years after they were recorded, or on Sept. 29, 1997, whichever came later. Yarmouth extended its rights to 108 paper streets in 1997, and at least 42 roads were vacated in whole or in part by 1999.

The Legislature also gave towns the ability to extend their rights over the areas by 20 years, bringing the decision of what to do with them into 2017. 

Some of the most contested of the streets now under review are part of the Seashore Land Association Development and Hamilton Park laid out in the early 1900s on Cousins Island and the Nowell, Batchelder and Kellogg development plan on Littlejohn Island created in the late 1800s.

The question of what to do with the paper streets is being addressed in public meetings by the Town Council. The next meeting to discuss paper streets is scheduled for Feb. 16, with subsequent meetings March 16, April 20 and May 18. 

Town Manager Nat Tupper said among the options, residents can decide to “extend the town’s rights for 20 more years; accept a partial easement for recreational trails or utilities, in which case the clock doesn’t run out; or we should do nothing and let the law run its course.”

Previous meetings have addressed public concern over how to best protect the areas, which often include shore access. Some island residents have differed on whether the land is best protected under town control, sometimes with members of the same family in disagreement.

A Dec. 15 hearing and vote on Cousins Island’s paper streets resulted in the decision to extend the town’s rights for another 20 years for “almost everything with that one little exception there,” Tupper said at the following meeting on Jan. 19, referring to a small area by the coast. “The town’s rights as well as all the private rights will remain the same.”

Decisions about Littlejohn Island and the smaller surrounding islands won’t have to be finalized until May. 

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