Court: Owls Head Residents Have Rights to Shore Near Private Property

Aug 1, 2014

A group of residents of Owls Head will continue to have access to a beach following a Superior Court decision this week. A New York couple who owns a house in Owls Head had filed suit against the town and their neighbors to try to limit access to what they believed was their own private property.

Darlene and Lewis Edwards came to Maine to find peace and quiet, says their attorney David Soley. They thought they found it when they bought a waterfront home on the end of a secluded road in Owls Head in 2011. But Soley says the Edwardses soon discovered neighbors were also enjoying the beach in front of their home. They also drove up and down their driveway, which runs parallel to the shore.

"They didn't mind allowing people to use their property with their permission, but they felt things were getting out of hand," Soley says.

So the Edwardses decided to sue — both the town of Owls Head and their neighbors. At issue in the case was the couple's desire for peace and privacy and a communal neighborhood's long history of shared use, where both year-round and seasonal families have developed strong friendships and freely access each others' properties.

"There were two principal issues at stake in this case," says Attorney Bill Dale, who represented the town of Owls Head. He says the first issue was whether the road the Edwardses live on — Coopers Beach Road — was public or private. The second issue was about the neighbors's rights.

"Did the neighbors have the right to walk on Coopers Beach Road, and secondarily, did the neighbors have the right to walk on the sandy beach adjacent to the road?" Dale says.

A Knox County Superior Court judge ruled that the road was established as a public easement in 1986. What that means is that neighbors can continue to walk and drive up and down the road. And though the judge said the public did not have prescriptive rights, or the same kind of established rights, to use the beach in front of the Edwards' home, the judge did find neighbors have deeded rights to the shore. Dale says the practical effect of the ruling is that the neighbors are allowed to boat and bathe on the shore.

"They sort of lost the battle but won the war," Dale says of the neighborhood.

Essentially, not much has changed for the Edwardses. Soley says they haven't decided yet whether to appeal.

"I am disappointed and hopeful that this can be rectified in the future," Soley says.

Another case involving public access to the shore drew attention earlier this year. The Maine Supreme Court sided with property owners protecting their access to Goose Rocks Beach in Kennebunkport. After a request from the town, the court agreed to reconsider and a final decision hasn't been issued. Both the Goose Rocks and the Owls Head decisions likely won't have statewide implications, says Eric Conrad of the Maine Municipal Association.

"Our attorneys feel it's hard to draw broad conclusions from property rights cases," Conrad says. "In many cases, the facts on the ground in a particular beach or community is what determines the ruling."

Dale says the rule in Maine has been that if you use somebody else's property, you don't ultimately gain a prescriptive right, which is what users in Goose Rocks were looking for. If prescriptive rights were granted, says Dale, landowners that used to allow access would likely start blocking use of their property.