A group of Mainers filed a lawsuit this week against property owners who claim ownership over intertidal land in a long-awaited challenge to a landmark state court ruling.
The case, filed in Cumberland County Superior Court, holds that beach land between the high-water and low-water mark should be available for public use, which conflicts with a 1989 court ruling that stripped the public’s right to beaches throughout the state for harvesting and recreation.
“We’re confident Maine law will once again clearly state that the people of Maine own all the beaches along the coast, and all the intertidal lands,” said Benjamin Ford, one of three attorneys representing 23 plaintiffs including public figures and business owners.
Maine’s 3,500-mile coastline includes less than 100 miles of sandy beaches. About 40 miles are publicly owned. A Maine court ruled in 1989 that legislation permitting intertidal beach land for public recreational use was unconstitutional. The Maine Supreme Judicial Court upheld the ruling two years later by a 4-3 margin.
The issue stemmed from a clash between a group of homeowners along private Moody Beach in Wells in the early 1980s, who sued the southern Maine coastal town for not enforcing trespassing laws against people who used the beach for sunbathing, swimming and other recreational purposes.
The case, Bell v. Town of Wells, became the legal benchmark in the fight for rights to Maine’s coastlines, granting up-land beachfront property owners rights to the beach all the way to the low-tide mark. Ford calls that 1989 ruling a “30-year-old mistake,” according to the complaint that names 10 defendants and Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey.
The high court ruling overturning “centuries of precedent” and inflicting “direct harm” on those who rely on intertidal land to fish and harvest marine life, Ford argues on behalf of the plaintiffs.
But Maine’s top courts have supported the decades-old decision in recent years, ruling in 2019 that intertidal zones belong to coastal homeowners, allowing them to deny seaweed harvesters the ability to cut and harvest algae from the coastal rockweed. Some scientists have criticized that ruling, saying it mischaracterizes seaweed as a plant rather than a marine organism, which the law permits under an easement allowing fishing.
The group of plaintiffs, who live in 13 Maine municipalities, seek to end “harassment and intimidation” of public users of the shoreline. They include Orlando Delogu, a former University of Maine School of Law professor and author of the book “Maine’s Beaches Are Public Property”; Chad Coffin, a Freeport fisherman and president of the Maine Clammers Association; and owners of several Maine-owned shellfish and seaweed harvesting companies.
Plaintiffs also include several longtime residents of Wells, who hope to reverse the 1980s ruling that prohibited them and family members from using the shoreline.
Correction: An earlier version of this report misstated what year the Maine Supreme Judicial Court issued its ruling in Bell v. Town of Wells.