Times Record: What price waterfront access in Harpswell? (March 6, 2014)

When is the price of open access too high? It appears Harpswell is about to find out.

Residents will vote at Town Meeting on March 15 whether to accept the terms of an agreement to restore traditionally public access across private lands to Cedar Beach, Cedar Island and Robinhood Beach in the Orr’s Island section. This is alongside a separate deal they approved in November for waterfront access, with an agreement to buy Dain Allen’s small parcel of land on Lookout Point for $85,000.

Both deals are in trouble without further, undetermined outlays.

Allen’s 0.3-acre lot needs some tainted soil removed. Selectmen last week extended, for a third time, the deadline to purchase the plot — and still no one knows who would pay for the soil remediation, the extent of which the town has already spent $3,500 merely to determine.

Meanwhile, at last year’s Town Meeting, voters approved spending $220,000 toward acquiring a Cedar Beach easement. But conditions attached to the current easement deal mean unspecified costs for Harpswell taxpayers — for monitoring, maintenance and potential road improvements — far into the future.

The current state of talks between activists and landowners promise continued legal battling — indeed, activists have already sued the property owners in court. If residents approve the easement deal on March 15, the town would inextricably join that legal snakepit.

In a town with 216 miles of Atlantic Ocean frontage and several rivers, lakes, ponds and estuaries, it’s a no-brainer that the average Harpswell resident should have access to the water.

But is the aggravation worth it?

We would suggest Harpswell try a different tack — one that would take the financial pressure off the town’s books. Maine’s Farm and Open Space Tax Laws — established in the early 1970s to prevent property taxes from forcing farms, woodlands and significant open space into tax delinquency or development — could help. These programs make it easier for owners of easement-restricted properties to achieve a more predictable tax assessment.

In the open space program, tax reductions can reach 95 percent for land under a “forever wild” easement that guarantees public access for traditional recreation, according to the Maine Coast Heritage Trust, whose job it is to secure key parcels of waterfront land.

Some landowners use these tax programs as a “trial form” of permanent protection, knowing land can be withdrawn from them subject to a penalty, or transferred into another program without penalty.

Perhaps the same tax law tools that are used to preserve open space from development can be employed to secure public water access in Harpswell. If significant tax benefits can be offered to compensate homeowners for sacrificing their property rights in a conservation easement, it could represent a breakthrough that provides them some compensation for securing use of the land for public access at less cost to the municipality.

Another route would be to pursue an easement purchase through Land for Maine’s Future. Those funds require a “match,” but at least would create cost certainty for the acquirer.

Harpswell may want to begin banking municipal resources for future such easement purchases.

In the meantime, based on what we’ve seen and heard, Harpswell residents should take a very close look at the Cedar Beach agreement between now and next Saturday.

Before making a decision, ask whether there’s a better way to acquire water access that doesn’t produce as many bad financial consequences.

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