HARPSWELL, Maine — A Maine Superior Court ruling has restored public access to Cedar Beach in Harpswell, ending a years-long battle to establish that the public has a prescriptive easement to the beach over Cedar Beach Road.
The plaintiffs in the case, the nonprofit Cedar Beach/Cedar Island Supporters, argued that through several decades of use, the public has acquired a right to access Cedar Beach via Cedar Beach Road, which was closed to the public in 2011 by-then owners Charles and Sally Abrahamson.
CB/CIS filed a lawsuit against the Abrahamsons, who were later joined by Florida-based entrepreneur Betsy Atkins as a co-defendant. In the middle of the dispute, Atkins completed a purchase-and-sale agreement with the Abrahamsons for the contested road.
A second lawsuit had been filed by CB/CIS against beach adjacent property owners Jonathan and Rachel Aspatore, which was later resolved in mediation to allow foot traffic across their parcel from the road to the beach.
Superior Court Justice Nancy Mills presided over the case, which went to trial in May. A judgment was filed Monday ruling in favor of CB/CIS, which the court noted is a group that represents roughly 300 members from 17 states and several countries.
The findings, as recorded in the ruling, stated that in 1926 Dr. Eugene McCarty, then owner of Cedar Beach Road, “allowed the public to travel down Cedar Beach Road to Cedar Beach.”
Testimony cited in the 73-page ruling included more than a dozen individuals, some who recalled using the beach for 80 years. Some testimony noted that a chain had at one time crossed the road to deter public access and that with McCarty’s death in 1957, actual permission to use the road ended.
The ruling stated, “Maine has long accepted the doctrine that the public can acquire a non-possessory interest in land,” and that to claim a public prescriptive easement, a party must prove continuous use by the public over a period of at least 20 years, either with the owner’s knowledge, or in a manner so “open, notorious, visible” that the owner’s knowledge can be presumed.
Further, for a prescriptive easement, the use must be “under a claim of right adverse to the owner.” This “adversity” is established in the fact that the property was used without permission, “disregarding (the owner’s) claims entirely,” the ruling stated.
“We, the people, won!,” wrote CB/CIS board members in an open letter to fellow supporters after receiving the ruling. “Please accept our thanks for all that you have done to facilitate this victory. This is a victory for our community.”