OWLS HEAD, Maine — The state’s highest court has upheld the town’s easement on a strip of waterfront land owned by a New York couple, assuring access to the beach by neighbors.
The case has been in the court system for more than four years and cost taxpayers more than $100,000 to defend the public easement.
The Maine Supreme Judicial Court issued the ruling Thursday in the appeal filed by Darlene and Lewis Edwards III of Saugerties, New York. The Edwardses had argued that neither the town nor their neighbors had the right to cross the property to reach Rockland Harbor.
The town’s attorney, William Dale, said town officials were very pleased with the outcome.
Attorney David Soley of Portland said the Edwardses were disappointed with the decision. He said they moved into the neighborhood in good faith, and there was nothing filed in the registry of deeds to indicate that the town or their neighbors had the right to cross their property.
The high court pointed out that state law requires anyone challenging a town’s vote on designating a public easement must appeal within 30 days. Residents voted for the public easement at an August 1986 town meeting.
The justices also ruled that the description of the location of the public easement is clear and includes the road that goes to the waterfront, which the Edwardses claim is their driveway.
The justices said that the immediate neighbors Cynthia Blackman; her brother, Eliot A. Scott; and their parents, Nathalie M. Scott and Willis A. Scott Jr., have the right to cross the property for bathing and boating purposes.
From 1973 to 1986, the town hired contractors to sand and plow Coopers Beach Road, which was then a private road composed of four separate branches all the way to the cul-de-sac located on what is now the Edwardses’ property. After the town learned that it was not allowed to expend public funds to maintain private roads, the town announced its intent to cease plowing private roads at the end of the 1985-86 winter season. Residents in that area then signed a petition that led to the town vote.
The Edwardses purchased the 1.7-acre lot at the end of Coopers Beach Road in March 2011 for $274,300 after a bank foreclosed on the previous owners. Coopers Beach Road runs from North Shore Drive to near the harbor.
In November 2011, they filed a lawsuit to block their neighbors from crossing their property and also to challenge the town’s public easement, which allows the municipality to plow and sand the road.
Justice Jeffrey Hjelm sided with the town and neighbors in a July 2014 decision. The Edwardses appealed that ruling to the supreme court.
Hjelm had stated in his ruling that Coopers Beach has been described as a colony, for good reason.
“Homeowners, both year-round and seasonal, have developed strong friendships with each other. As an aspect of the relationships among them, they sometimes walk on or otherwise use each other’s property. Families visited with each other, and there were neighborhood parties and events,” Hjelm stated in his ruling.
He also said that use of the beach by neighbors was a long-standing practice.
Soley said the municipal government is taking away the property rights of the Edwardses by its action. He said when his clients purchased the property, they had no way to know that the town claimed an easement over it.
He said soon after the owners moved into the house, the next-door neighbor would cross their property six to seven times a day and would give them nasty looks.
The Edwardses also filed a lawsuit against their title company. The status of that case was not immediately available Thursday afternoon.