Beach Access Controversy | Who Owns the Beach?
One steamy July day, not long after he’d moved to Goose Rocks, Harris was wrapping up the morning when his teenage stepson burst into the house and related how he and his girlfriend had been asked to move off the beach. The complaint, he said, had come from a woman on the beach behind a home owned by Barbara Rencurrel. Even though Rencurrel had a history of carefully guarding the sands between her home and the water, Harris was incensed. “Not on my watch,” he told his son, and he grabbed his towel and Frisbee.
“In New England there’s this idea that private property is sacred and it’s yours to do with you as you wish,” he told me. “I don’t disagree with that in its purest form, but when it becomes part of a larger entity, like a waterfall or a beach, you’re talking about something unique. This is an important thing to everyone. It should be available for all the public.”
But beach law can be a confounding thing. And as Ned Coll discovered, in New England, a region steeped deeply in the values around private property, it’s a particularly divisive issue. Even in the 1970s, as other states, such as Oregon, Hawaii, Texas, and Florida, opened up their coastlines to the public, New England budged very little.
Maine is especially conservative. Maine and Massachusetts are two of only four coastal states in the country that permit ownership down to the low-tide mark. They also share something else: a 1647 Colonial ordinance, crafted when the two were still joined together, which restricts use within the intertidal zone to three specific activities: “fishing, fowling, and navigation.” Even in the wake of a tourist boom that’s enveloped beach communities over the last half-century, Maine has strayed little from a strict interpretation of that wording. The effect of the law is a curious one, allowing strangers to, for example, carry fishing poles and shotguns onto private property, but not towels or sunscreen.
Harris was only vaguely familiar with Maine beach law as he marched to the sand on that July day. Motivated by a lifetime spent living in oceanside communities where public access is more accommodating, he stood directly in front of the Rencurrel home, playing a game of catch with himself, throwing his Frisbee into the wind so that it came sailing back to him.
Within minutes, he says, Rencurrel’s daughter, Leslie Josselyn-Rose, came down to the beach and asked him to move. The conversation was courteous, but the back-and-forth lasted a good 10 minutes before Harris finally headed home. (Josselyn-Rose says that the person who confronted Harris’s stepson was neither she nor her mother.) Over the next dozen years, more confrontations followed, all of them between Harris and Rencurrel. He’d come down on his lunch break and sit on a beach chair. Sometimes the two would exchange words; other times, when Harris was in the water, Rencurrel would leave him a highlighted copy of Maine beach law.
“Most people were very gracious when I asked them to leave,” says Rencurrel, a widow and former Kennebunkport selectman, whose family has owned property in Goose Rocks since the 1940s. “But Mic was the only one who caused any problems.”
Things finally came to a head on a late August afternoon in 2005 after Rencurrel called the police. When the two officers arrived, Harris, who was sitting with friends, stood up and calmly defended his position, telling the officers that he believed the beach should be open to the public. He phoned his wife. “There’s a chance I might be arrested,” he told her. Within minutes she was at her husband’s side with 15 friends for support.
It was hardly a protest, and Harris eventually went home, but it proved to be a touchstone for the community. For the town, the incident forced officials to re-evaluate their position on the beach; they finally concluded that a century of public use had granted it a prescriptive easement over all of it. For the oceanfront owners, the clash between Rencurrel and Harris, and the town’s subsequent unwillingness to defend Rencurrel’s property rights, galvanized them into action. They held regular meetings, elected a leadership committee, and hired Sidney “Pete” Thaxter, an experienced attorney out of Portland who has spent more than two decades arguing for and representing property owners in beach-law cases. After rounds of talks and stalled mediation sessions with the town, the property owners filed their lawsuit against Kennebunkport in late October 2009.
Harris wasn’t done, either. When he learned about the case, he took his protest in a different direction. In a community where summer rental income is vital, and access to the beach is vital to that income, Harris feared that the town might strike quickly and settle for a deal that would undermine the residents. He knocked on his neighbors’ doors and asked for financial help to launch a new entity called Save Our Beaches (SOB), which would inform people about the case and rally support for the town.
Within a month he had $5,000, and over the next few years the group rallied the community with bake sales and concerts, as well as sponsored lectures about beach rights. At the height of summer, in the yards of backlot properties, up to 500 signs supporting SOB sprouted up like grass. Then, in the spring of 2010, in the face of a still-sputtering economy, Kennebunkport voters backed a proposal to set aside $250,000 for the lawsuit. (Over the next two years, an additional $550,000 was also approved.)
“It’s like that movie, It’s a Wonderful Life,” Harris says. “It could have been Pottersville if the town had just rolled over. There are people on the other side I’ve been friends with, but I can’t fraternize with them anymore. It doesn’t seem right to be friends and act like nothing has happened. They’re not suing an anonymous community.”
THE BEACHFRONT OWNER
Robert Almeder doesn’t pretend that he is. If it was Rencurrel who first helped corral oceanfront owners, it was Almeder who steered the group once the issues with the town had deepened. Tall, with thinning white hair, Almeder, a retired professor of philosophy, lives with his wife, Virginia, year-round on the western edge of Goose Rocks, a couple of hundred yards from where I first saw those college kids throwing a football.
The Almeders discovered the area in the late 1970s. They owned a summer place in Rye Beach, New Hampshire, and one day drove to Maine and stumbled upon Goose Rocks. They were drawn to its quiet pace and its lack of traffic–attributes that seemed to be missing from their New Hampshire place. That same day, they looked at a rundown beachfront home that had just come on the market. With their two young girls, the Almeders went for a swim. The beach was empty, birds were flying overhead, and by the time they were drying off, the couple had decided to buy the home.