Standish residents may soon have access to a beach on Sebago Lake – without needing a boat to get there.

The Standish Town Council and the Portland Water District have signed an agreement for the town to lease land from the district to build a road, a parking lot and a pedestrian bridge so residents can get to Sandbar Beach, a long strip of sand bordered by woods and accessible now only by water.

Before any development begins, the town and the water district must negotiate details of the lease and the management plan for the beach. Also, the project must be designed, and its funding needs approval from residents.

Town Manager Gordon Billington wouldn’t estimate the cost of the project, but said it would be more than $75,000 so it would have to go to a townwide vote.

All of that could take years, but supporters say the agreement shows that the historically strained relationship between the town and the water district is healing.

That, however, has been said before.

The tension dates back to the 1910s and 1920s, when the district started taking land and tearing down cottages around Lower Bay, the location of the district’s intake pipes, to protect the source of Greater Portland’s drinking water.

Bill Lunt, a longtime member of the district’s board of trustees, believes residents’ lingering animosity played into their rejection of two plans in the past 20 years that would have given them beach access.

“It always boils down to the biggest issue being the town of Standish doesn’t trust the water district,” he said.

The first proposal was made in 1994, when the district offered the town access to a beach if it would move its boat launch from Sebago Lake Village, near the intake pipes, to the Whites Bridge Road area, Billington said.

Opposition from neighbors of the site proposed for the new launch sank the plan.

“The residents in that area were very vocal about not wanting a boat launch in their backyard,” said Billington.

A new plan emerged in 2002 for the district to build a $2.7 million facility with a boat launch, a public beach and athletic fields a couple of miles east of the existing boat launch. The project was supported unanimously by the Town Council, but opposed by two citizens groups, which launched a vigorous campaign with phone calls, fliers and newspaper ads.

The opponents said that moving the boat launch would hurt businesses in Sebago Lake Village, and that rough waters at the proposed site would be hazardous to boaters and swimmers. The proposal was narrowly defeated at the polls.

After that, Lunt said, the water district decided it was done making proposals to the town. The attitude became “if they want something, they can come to us,” he said.

For the past 10 years, a committee of town councilors and water district trustees has been working to figure out a new plan, but various “sticking points,” such as the district’s ability to terminate the lease at any time, have kept the group from bringing anything forward until now, Billington said.

Lunt believes the relationship between the town and the district has improved for a few specific reasons.

A few years ago, he said, the district opened up much of its land in Standish for residents’ recreational use, including walking and snowmobiling. Also, he said, new residents don’t have the same attitude toward the water district.

“(They) have seen that the district does good things,” he said.

Although the new proposal is promising, Lunt said, the town and the district have to work out many details, such as setting beach access hours and capacity at the beach, and deciding what to do if the water tests high for bacteria.

“It’s not over with yet, by a long shot,” he said.

One group that will keep a close eye on the process is the Sebago Boating Club, which has leased Sandbar Beach from the water district for the past 25 years.

Joel Campbell, the club’s commodore, said the club will likely dissolve if members who aren’t Standish residents are no longer allowed to use the beach. “Without this beach, we have nowhere to go,” he said.

Campbell said the club has about 300 members. As many as 100 boats can pull up to Sandbar Beach at once, and some have to be turned away on days when the club holds events.

Campbell said he hopes the club can be represented in negotiations between the town and the water district. “We’re looking to continue to use the beach, and we’re hoping we can work something out with Standish,” he said.

That is, if the residents decide they want a beach this time.

Unlike in previous proposals, which made beach access contingent on moving the boat launch, the water district isn’t asking for anything in return – though it’s not offering to pay for any improvements, either.

Lunt said Standish already sacrifices “a tremendous amount of real estate” around the lake that could help its tax base. That’s why he has been dedicated to helping residents get beach access.

“We’re trying to do what’s right,” he said.

 

Staff Writer Leslie Bridgers can be contacted at 791-6364 or at: [email protected]