Opinion: We can’t let rich landowners kill public beach access

Higgins Beach in Scarborough, Maine. | Joe Shlabotnik, Creative Commons via Flickr

Sophie Piette, a student at University of New England and intern with intern at Archipelago Law, contributed research to this piece.

Private landowners are ending Maine’s tradition of public access to its beaches. Shorefront owners have harassed and called the police on people trying to make a living, conducting vital research, or simply taking a walk, even badgering children playing in the sand. If this hasn’t been you yet, it soon could be.

Maine residents are currently losing beach access due to a misguided Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruling made in 1989. That ruling claimed that beachfront property owners have title to the intertidal zone between the high- and low-tide water marks. The only way local Mainers will freely walk the coast again is by joining the fight to reclaim state control over intertidal land to be held in trust for the public.

I grew up with unfettered access to Cape Cod’s beaches, sparking my love for the ocean and kindling a sense of responsibility for protecting its natural beauty. Having spent much of my early life on commercial docks and on fishing vessels, I learned that respect for the ocean sets in quickly when you depend on it for your livelihood.

Some of Maine’s local fishermen and business owners rely on the intertidal zone for the harvesting of kelp, seaweed, clams, oysters, and worms. Their success and Maine’s economic success will be curtailed if landowners only allow restricted access to the intertidal zone and the resources it holds.

The current case affects the intertidal zone up and down the coast of Maine. The plaintiffs in the case range from local homeowners to marine biologists and seaweed harvesters across Maine. The defendants are mostly upland property owners with plots along the coast. Some defendants have been closing off the beach to the public for years by posting “No Trespassing” signs and placing physical barriers in the sand to block off the beach. While other defendants have been blocking off access for critical economic activities such as seaweed harvesting.

The plaintiffs are limited to the few public rights still protected after the 1989 case, as defined by a 17th century ordinance limiting activities to fishing, fowling, and navigation. The goal of the litigation is to expand the definition of these colonial terms in order to include modern day uses of the intertidal zone. The plaintiffs are also hoping for a reexamination of the Maine 1989 Maine Supreme Court case Bell v. Town of Wells, which made the determination that private parties could own all the way to the low-tide mark and enforce these limited activities. 

In their complaint, the plaintiffs’ argue that the intertidal zone is held in public trust by each state, as the result of the Equal Footing Doctrine and that owners cannot claim ownership of intertidal land all the way to the lower watermark and advocated for the expansion of the public trust to allow activities beyond that of the Colonial Ordinance. In April, a Maine Superior Court justice dismissed all counts but one. The surviving count argues for the expansion of the Colonial Ordinance’s definition of ‘fishing, fowling, and navigation’ to encompass the modern economic and recreational uses of the beach. Attorneys expect to see significant developments in the case in the next few months. 

There are many fighting hard for the public’s right to access Maine’s intertidal land, and you can help. Learn more about the court case at ourbeaches.me. Reach out to your elected officials at the district and state level and tell them your story and what the intertidal zone means to you. Let them know Mainers will not let this go quietly.

About Isabella Caprio

Avatar photoIsabella Caprio grew up on Cape Cod and graduated from Scituate High School in 2020. Isabella is currently an undergraduate student at the University of New England where she is a double major in Marine Affairs and Political Science. She is also an intern at Archipelago Law, LLP in Portland, Maine.

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