Beach Access Controversy | Who Owns the Beach?
“It was just so unmolested,” says Almeder, sitting at his kitchen table, which offers straight-on views of the beach. “The first time I came here it struck me as wonderful, and I still feel that way.”
As the years wore on, and grandchildren and retirement entered their lives, the couple renovated the home. They added bedrooms, large windows off the living room and kitchen, and a spacious upstairs study for Almeder. In 2006, they made Goose Rocks their full-time home.
For Almeder, the Goose Rocks case inspires long, meaty paragraphs about how Kennebunkport’s elected leaders have failed the community and what their real motives are. In his view, he sees a town leadership stocked with businesspeople who want to introduce the kind of Route 1 development that’s become commonplace in Wells and York.
“It’s legalization of theft,” he says. “I think it’s the biggest land grab in Maine. All these villages were pretty little towns, but everybody likes to go to the ocean for a few weeks in the summer. And typically the ones who stay there in the winter get elected to boards of selectmen, and most of them are living off tourists … What these towns do, and will continue to do if they can, is take the property’s use and control it for some merchants.”
Almeder was particularly fired up by recent developments. In late August the town reached an agreement with the 62 non-plaintiff oceanfront owners on a resolution that called for a 25-foot beach buffer in front of their homes. The effect was a sort of private/public zone. Anyone could access the beach in front of these houses, but if an owner wanted exclusive use of that 25-foot zone, he or she could have unwanted visitors removed. In addition, tighter restrictions on commercial activity were put in place, as was a commitment by the town not to increase public parking.
But the bigger hammer fell a month later, when Superior Court Judge G. Arthur Brennan issued his ruling in the Goose Rocks case. In it he overwhelmingly sided with the town and said that a prescriptive easement had been established, giving the public full use of the beach. While the plaintiffs quickly appealed the case to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, the decision meant that this small group of oceanfront owners now had even less control of the beach than their neighbors who’d signed the agreement with the town. Almeder, though, has no regrets, and the willingness of those around him to settle rather than fight for their property rights frustrates him.
“I think it has something to do with the cost,” he says, letting out a long breath. “And there was this [SOB] group harassing beachfront owners and making them feel like they were being hostile to their neighbors. People were getting angry at beachfront owners, and some of them just said, ‘I don’t want to deal with it.'”
About three-quarters of the way through our conversation, Almeder looks outside and then turns to me. “Let’s take a walk,” he says, slipping on some old blue sneakers. We step out onto his deck, and then down onto a path that cuts between patches of long strands of brown beach grass. Overhead a winter sun is sinking in the sky, and we head in its direction, walking toward the banks of the Batson River. When we reach the water’s edge, Almeder turns toward the sea.
“You can see why you just want to come out here in the morning,” he says, spreading his arms out, as though he’s embracing the landscape. The tide is moving out, opening up a wide swath of empty sand, which we have all to ourselves.
But this is not just about the beach. For Almeder, the property could be a parking lot or a retired landfill. As he sees it, the sand in front of his house is his, he owns it, and he doesn’t want to be told how it should be managed.
“We are happy to give permission to everybody to walk this beach,” he says. “But we also want to have the right to say, ‘Get off.’ And that’s the way it’s been for 100 years. I think we’ve been very good about sharing. But I don’t trust the government, and I don’t trust those who are willing to take your property for economic gain for others or themselves.”
As Almeder talks about the case, he becomes more animated, more upset over how things have played out. “What has happened is the town poisoned the well by setting up something like class warfare,” he says. “These people in the back lots talk about the rich people on the front. That we’re one-percenters. Maybe there’s a certain amount of envy there, I don’t know. I never thought about it that way. But I think it’s a shame that the town succeeded in pitting one part of the community against the other in order to take land that they had no right to.”
Bill Junker has never really seen the beach as any one person’s land. Few families have a connection to Goose Rocks like his. His mother’s grandparents first started vacationing here in 1908, back when Route 9 was just a dirt road and farmers drove horse-drawn carts to the still-undeveloped western end of the beach each spring to collect seaweed for fertilizer. It’s where his parents first met and fell in love, and as a kid Junker spent every one of his summers at Goose Rocks. In 1977, shortly after graduating from college, he became a year-round resident.
“My college roommates would always ask me, ‘Why are you going home for the summer?'” says Junker, who’s married with three grown children. He lets out a chuckle: “But then they’d come visit and see why.”