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Plaintiffs hope a lawsuit will expand public access along a southern Maine beach

A sign describing privacy restrictions along Moody Beach.
Patty Wight
Maine Public
A sign describing privacy restrictions along Moody Beach.

Summer may be winding down, but Maine's beaches are still a big draw for residents and tourists alike — especially in the southern coastal town of Wells.

But enter Moody Beach at its southern end, and you'll be greeted by several signs that declare it's private property. And if there's any question where the public beach ends and the private beach begins, a line of seaweed piled on the sand by one of the homeowners makes it clear. On Saturday, Susan Roy of Connecticut, set up her chair on the edge of the seaweed, clearly irritated by it.

"These owners live to put this seaweed border up every year," she said. "It's their mission."

The seaweed border is emblematic of a legal dispute between shoreline homeowners and public beachgoers who say they should be allowed to set out their towels along the roughly mile-long beach. About 100 people rallied at the beach on Saturday to draw attention to the issue.

"This sand is yours! This sand is mine! Reverse the curse of '89!" the group chanted.

That year — 1989 — was when the Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled that private property rights extend down to the low tide mark. The decision was based on a colonial-era law from the 1600s that also carves out an exception for limited public use: for fishing, fowling, and navigation.

"We don't even know what that means," said Jeannie Connerney.

She's a member of Free Moody Beach. She says she's been coming here for more than 50 years and remembers playing on the beach as a child. But she says that open community access changed after the court decision. And now a lawsuit before a Superior Court judge seeks to expand and modernize the list of the activities the public is allowed to do on the sand in front of private property owners, from beachcombing to building sandcastles.

One of the plaintiffs in the case is Peter Masucci. He and his wife own a cottage across the street from Moody Beach.

"My wife's family had the property for over 100 years," he said. "And for many decades there was never an issue of coming onto Moody Beach and putting our towel down, or bringing our children or grandchildren over play the sand. Over the past few years, it's become more uncomfortable as more oceanfront owners put up signs discouraging any 'loitering' as it's called."

Others at the rally said some interactions with private homeowners are outright hostile. Donna Cummings is a backlot property owner and has been coming here since she was a baby.

"Last summer my granddaughter, who's 22, wanted to walk the beach," she said. "She came down the beach and somebody approached her and told her to get off the beach, get off her land."

Benjamin Ford is an attorney who represents the plaintiffs who are suing for broad public beach access.

"We see the signs, we see the seaweed walls, we see the harassment, we see police being called on innocent people just here to enjoy a day at the beach. We see all of these things and we find out on top of that, the people on this beach that build these multimillion dollar houses are not paying taxes on any of this."

Ford says Maine and Massachusetts are the only two states that extend private property rights to the low tide mark. In most other states, they only go to the high tide line. He says it's time to modernize Maine law because the situation at Moody is only getting worse. But some shoreline homeowners, like David Giarusso, say it's only a few beachfront property owners who are territorial.

"If someone wants to lay in front of my beach, I don't have any issues, it doesn't bother me," he said. "But there are some people that will — they'll be like, way down there, 100 feet, and they'll come out of their house to chase them off the beach."

A few doors away is Steven Levesque's oceanfront home. He says he's experienced both sides of the issue. He used to own a nearby house without beach access.

"So for 10 years, we walked almost a mile to the beach," he said. "And that's what you did, right? And we were fortunate enough to afford this house. You know, it came with the beach rights."

And Levesque says there are liability issues if he allows the public to use his beach, though he tries to work with people who wander onto his property.

Several hundred yards away, Quebec tourist Odette Simoneau pulls a beach cart in front of a house with private property signs. She looks around, confused, then stops.

"I was going to find someone to ask the question, 'where am I supposed to sit,' you know? Because there's private signs in a few places but not everywhere," she said. "So is it different from one house to another? So I didn't know what to do."

If the plaintiffs in the case are successful, there will be no question. She — and other public beachgoers — will be able to set up anywhere.