Direct routes from one place to another are rare in Maine. But people in Cumberland, Maine now have direct access to the beach — despite opposition from neighbors.
Maine residents are familiar with the statement “you can’t get there from here.” The joke is that it’s impossible to find a direct route between many places in Maine, but the Maine Supreme Court paved the way to an exception when it ruled against neighbors who opposed public access to a beach park in Cumberland (Estate of Robbins v. Chebeague and Cumberland Land Trust). The opinion confirms that Maine’s conservation easement enabling act does not give special enforcement powers to neighbors or to the public at large.
In 1997, Marion Payson donated a conservation easement on 100 acres of coastal land in the town of Cumberland to the Chebeague & Cumberland Land Trust (CCLT). In 2014, the family later sold all but two acres to a developer. The developer then worked out a deal to sell the town a 25-acre portion of the protected property for $3 million. The town planned to develop a beachfront park, including the paving of an existing unpaved access road and the establishment of a parking area, portable toilets and a pier. CCLT determined that the paved road, parking area and recreational structures would not violate the conservation easement and Cumberland voters approved the beach park purchase in November 2014.
The Payson family (acting through the Estate of Merrill Robbins, the record owner of the two acres) objected to the sale to the town and filed suit against CCLT and the town, claiming that the park improvements would violate the conservation easement. The town and CCLT filed motions to dismiss, contending that the estate had no standing because it owned only the two-acre parcel, which was separate from the 25-acre parcel to be developed into the beach park. The trial court agreed and dismissed all claims against the town and CCLT, and the estate appealed.
The Maine Supreme Judicial Court affirmed in a 3-2 decision, holding that a landowner of one geographic portion of a conservation easement protected property can’t enforce that easement on a separate area of the protected property owned by another person.
The court observed that from a policy perspective, allowing neighbors to enforce the easement outside their property would expose the easement holder to “expensive and complicated enforcement lawsuits” that often would not serve the public interest, such as in this case where the plaintiffs’ apparent motivation was to limit public access.