The summertime view from the deck of the town-owned bathhouse overlooking Long Sands Beach in York. Credit: Rich Beauchesne | The York Weekly

YORK, Maine — Of Maine’s entire 3,500-mile coastline, only 12 percent is publicly held. The remaining 88 percent, which includes beaches in Kittery, York, Wells, Kennebunk and beyond, is in private hands, with rights to the beach down to the low water mark.

In some cases, the town and property owners let the proverbial sleeping dog lie, and owners freely allow beachgoers to use their property. This has certainly been the case with at least one beach in York, where the Norton family owns Long Sands Beach from the Cutty Sark Motel to the Sun ’n Surf Restaurant. The family and the town are now in negotiations to perhaps purchase that beach — a lifeblood for tourism in York.

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In other cases, property owners have asserted their rights, inevitably leading to litigation – including the 30-year-old, precedent-setting Moody Beach case in Wells, which held that the public had acquired no easement to the beach by custom or by law. Today, said Wells Town Manager Jon Carter, due to the ruling the beach is in its natural state and the town does not maintain it.

In this case, the court relied on the Colonial Ordinance of the 1640s governing Massachusetts and its district of Maine, which allowed public access to beaches only for “fishing, fowling and navigation.” The public had no right to the beach for any other purpose, such as sunbathing, the court ruled.

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Today, another case could take this issue of private ownership in a wholly different direction. In the Goose Rocks Beach case in Kennebunkport, a Superior Court judge ruled last year that the town has title rights to the beach to the low water mark in front of all but one of the 23 private beachfront properties owned by those who brought the suit. That case is on appeal to the state Supreme Judicial Court.

Meanwhile, towns are taking many different routes to ensure public access to their beaches, such as securing easements or management agreements with the private property owner. And each beach is different, even if it’s in the same town, said Paul Dest, director of the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve. Dest is an author of a 2016 report, “A Citizen’s Guide to Ocean and Coastal Law” and has been working on public access issues for more than 20 years.

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“Every beach, every parcel of land along the shoreline is different – different ownership, different public use patterns over time,” he said. “You can’t say an easement on one beach is applicable on another beach. The Maine coast is treasured, even nationally. So if a community or a state or some public entity can permanently secure access, it’s a very good thing.”

York as case study

York has four beaches – Cape Neddick, Short Sands, Long Sands and York Harbor – and, as Dest has stated, none are cookie-cutter.

The northern end of Long Sands Beach – arguably the most valuable with its open sands and sweeping expanses at low tide – is owned by the Norton family of York Beach, whose ancestors virtually bought the beach itself.

In 1937, during the Great Depression, York Beach resident Harry Norton paid $175 to purchase the beach from a Hattie Perkins of York, during a repossession sale. Since that time, people have used the beach unimpeded for sunbathing.

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Town Manager Steve Burns said an “organic discussion” began between the family and the town after York had to purchase a small piece of land from the family to build its new bathhouse a few years ago – the old one was built on land donated by the family.

The family has come up with an appraisal, yet to be released publicly as it is a real estate transaction covered as an exception to the state’s Right to Know law. And the town has hired an appraiser to review it. It could be years before anything is before the voters for their consideration, said Burns, but he also felt it was important to pursue these talks.

“What does York look like if that’s not a public beach? Everyone thinks it’s a public beach,” he said. “The fact is, the family has made this freely available out of their personal generosity. But there are a million questions that come up. You look at the what ifs, and how do you deal with them?”

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Each of the town’s three other beaches are in a different position. Short Sands Beach has been owned and maintained by the town since 1917. Cape Neddick Beach, said Burns, is privately owned by a small group of landowners. There is no formal document between the town and the owners, he said, but they do allow beachgoers. They rejected an offer to have the town maintain it and provide lifeguards, preferring it remain in its natural state, said Burns. The town also limits parking to that beach.

With regard to York Harbor Beach, it, too, is privately owned, with the Stage Neck Colony condominium community owning half and the Hartley Mason Reservation owning the other half. Burns said there’s been no discussion with Stage Neck officials to forge an agreement. But with the Hartley Mason Reservation, Mason in 1921 made clear he wanted unimpeded public access to the beach. In 2018, the town and the reservation trustees formalized that relationship in a memorandum of understanding.

Case by case

Yet other situations exist in Wells, for instance. Moody Beach is only one of several beaches in the town, including the popular Wells Beach. Unlike along Long Sands Beach, which is separated from houses by a road and where there is a single owner, houses on Wells Beach like many other beaches in Maine virtually abut the sand.

Wells went to court and was successful in getting a recreational easement that allows public access to most of the beach. “It doesn’t mean we own it, but we have a right to use the beach. It’s been in place for a couple of decades, and it’s been pretty quiet.”

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Ogunquit simply purchased its long beach and the properties abutting it 150 years go. In Kittery, where Carter was once town manager, homeowners on Seapoint Beach have periodically raised concerns about public use of their property. At Parsons Beach in Kennebunk, the town has an agreement for public use with the landowners.

Dest said overarching all of this is his belief, and that of many others, that the public should have access to Maine’s coastline.

“The fact is, we’re not making any more beaches,” he said. “And this issue is particularly acute when we look at sandy beaches, which are highly valued and highly popular.”

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He said York is taking the most secure route for “eliminating the question mark” – actually attempting to purchase a beach outright. But towns that have secured agreements with private owners – even agreements with reasonable restrictions – are forging a positive way forward.

“Finding a way to keep it open and work together — that’s always the best route to go,” he said.