KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine — Nearly a decade after beachfront property owners filed a lawsuit against the town over their property rights at Goose Rocks Beach, the state’s highest court heard an appeal disputing a lower court ruling issued last year granting title rights to the town of Kennebunkport.
The Maine Supreme Judicial Court heard arguments from the attorneys for the plaintiffs, along with lawyers representing the town of Kennebunkport and the state of Maine in a hearing held at the judicial headquarters in Augusta Wednesday morning.
In the landmark 10-year legal battle over public beach access, the Maine Superior Court found in favor of the town of Kennebunkport last April in a ruling from Justice Wayne R. Douglas. The 274-page ruling granted title rights to the town of all beach areas in front of all but one of the 23 plaintiffs’ beachfront properties down to the low water mark.
The beachfront owners appealed the decision, arguing that the trial court erred in interpreting ancient deeds and other historical records in determining that the town owns Goose Rocks Beach.
Arguments Wednesday centered around how the land was granted hundreds of years ago, when the town of Kennebunkport was first settled.
Attorney Ben Leoni, representing the plaintiffs, argued that ancient deeds and land grants dating back to the 1700s for the beachfront property do not specifically grant the beach property to the town.
“Colonial land grants are dripping with ambiguity and if the court upholds this decision, it will cause title chaos across the state,” Leoni said.
Leoni argued that a grant from the original conveyors of the property for the land between the high and low water mark would have had to be given to the town in order for the town to have title to it. Those grants, specific to the beach itself, do not exist, he said.
Attorney David Kallin of Drummond Woodsum, representing the town of Kennebunkport, argued in support of Justice Douglas’ decision, saying that the land between high and low water was legally conveyed to the town hundreds of years ago, and that it was “retained as common and undivided land” for public access.
Kallin argued that if the court ruling is upheld “the result as a practical matter is the status quo remains for what has existed there forever, that the residents of Kennebunkport can continue to use the beach.”
Legal counsel representing the state of Maine urged the Law Court to uphold the judgement. Attorney Lauren Parker said the state agrees that the town of Kennebunkport owns the disputed property on Goose Rocks Beach.
Parker said “the public has the right to engage in reasonable ocean related activities, including walking, that do not interfere with the upland owners enjoyment of their own property.”
Twenty-eight beachfront property owners were part of the original suit. Five withdrew prior to last year’s ruling, and following the Superior Court decision, two more dropped out of the suit and signed the town’s beach use agreement which gives beach front property owners protections while agreeing to grant permission for the public’s use and remain out of the lawsuit.
Douglas’ ruling outlined reasoning for each property, and exempted one at 29 Sandpoint Road owned by the Temerlin family of LTG Maine Management Trusts. This property is on the very eastern edge of the beach abutting Little River and had a different title history, according to the court ruling.
Kennebunkport Town Attorney Amy Tchao said that if the Supreme Court affirms the decision as a whole then it will be the end of the case. If any part of the decision is overturned, the town can appeal, asking the court to declare a public prescriptive easement on a parcel by parcel basis.
A public prescriptive easement is an easement that is conveyed to the public by continued public use. Goose Rocks Beach has been used by the public for the past 250 years, Kallin said.