Beach Access Controversy | Who Owns the Beach?
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.
“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.”