Beach Access Controversy | Who Owns the Beach?
And nowhere are these issues playing out with more intensity than in the seaside community of Goose Rocks Beach in Kennebunkport, Maine.
NEIGHBOR AGAINST NEIGHBOR
Goose Rocks Beach stretches out before me. It’s a mid-July afternoon–blue sky overhead, temperatures well above 80–and I’m standing on the western edge of the shore. Nearby, the Batson River, a run of water that swirls through the neighboring Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, churns softly as it marches toward the sea. On one riverbank three college-age guys shed their shirts and kick off their sandals. They’ve brought a football, and after a few moments’ hesitation, all three wade into the water. The men spread out, throwing long, lazy passes to each other under the intense sun. Finally, one of them plunges under, emerging a few seconds later with a wide grin.
“Dude!” he announces to his buddies, “This is fresh!”
Others have maybe expressed it a little differently, but that kind of sentiment has driven generations of visitors to Goose Rocks ever since the area emerged in the late 1800s as a tourist destination. Its charm stems in part from its remoteness. Tucked quietly off Route 9, six miles north of the tourist pop that clogs the center of Kennebunkport, this tight community of some 300 homes has long enjoyed a certain independence from the rest of the town. There’s a fire station within its borders, a bustling community center, too, and Goose Rocks locals speak about the area as a separate, singular Maine community, attached yet apart.
The charm also rests with what Goose Rocks isn’t. It’s not downtown Kennebunkport, or Wells or York. And, as locals will remind you, it’s most definitely not Old Orchard Beach. Which is to say, it’s quiet. Even in summer. The general store, one of only two commercial entities near the beach, is open only during the summer, and opens full-time only in July and August. Tight business restrictions don’t allow even an ice-cream truck. And Kings Highway, the main road that runs behind a band of oceanfront homes, is a narrow two-lane street of slow-moving traffic and kids on bikes and scooters.
The real selling point, however, is the beach itself. At a length of more than two miles, Goose Rocks opens up even further at low tide. In spots the water rolls back some three-quarters of a mile, revealing a barrier reef that gives the area its name. And because it’s south-facing and because of those Goose Rocks, the ocean here is calmer and warmer than at most other Maine beaches.
“It’s a really nice place to raise kids,” says Maureen Somers, a third-generation Goose Rocks summer resident. “People have the same values, which I think is very hard to find in the world we’re living in. And it’s a safe place at night. The only thing you hear is the ocean and the laughter from people walking by. That’s an incredible thing.”
But there’s something else, too. In a state that boasts more than 3,500 miles of coastline but makes just 5 percent of it open to the public, Goose Rocks is remarkably available to anyone able to find a parking space and pay the $12 for an all-day permit. For years, in fact, Goose Rocks has enjoyed a somewhat-blurred division between public and private property. Unlike what exists a few miles south in Wells, the shoreline that accompanies the area’s 110 oceanfront homes has never been marked off by Private signs, much less fenced off. Walkers routinely make their way up and down the full length of the beach, and it’s not uncommon to find uninvited sunbathers or boats parked on the sands near those houses.
But if a group of property owners have their way, that would change. Driven by fears that the town wants to ramp up commercial development, invite in thousands of additional visitors to the beach, and strip them of the property rights to which they say their deeds entitle them, these 29 homeowners have pushed to secure control over the shoreline.
For many locals the move has been viewed as an assault on the community, an attempt to overturn a century of public use on a beach that by everyone’s account is never crowded. Early on, the town got behind the majority of its residents and asserted that the entire beach was public property. Failed mediation sessions gave way to failed attorney conversations, and then finally, last fall, a bruising three-week trial. In all, this fight has raged on for nearly six years and consumed almost $2 million in litigation costs. The path toward healing the community may be even steeper.
“These people have owned their places like 10 or 15 years and now they want to own the beach?” one exasperated local business owner told me. “How would they police the rest of it so people don’t walk on it?” There’s defiance in her voice. And then a smile: “I know I’m going to keep walking on it.”
LINE IN THE SAND
In a way, the battle over Goose Rocks began with Mic Harris and a game of Frisbee.
In a community where it’s not uncommon for families’ connections to the area to go back four or five generations, Harris is an outsider. Tall, with a rim of closely cropped graying hair and remnants of a Southern accent that betray his roots, Harris and his wife, Sharon Eon, a Mainer who summered here as a child, have called Goose Rocks their year-round home since 1992. Although not on the ocean, their house, a rebuilt four-bedroom place, sits on one of the area’s many back-lot roads, giving the couple about a three-minute walk to the water. With his 9-year-old golden retriever, Kaysea, Harris, who works from home in software sales, takes advantage of his proximity to the sea almost daily.