YORK — York selectmen declined Monday night to make a decision about whether the town will pursue trying to buy privately owned sections of beach to ensure public access.

The meeting became tense at times as selectmen questioned why Chairman Ron Nowell asked that the item be put on the agenda.

Monday marked the first time the board has discussed the idea of buying sections of beach or making other arrangements with landowners to ensure public access, a plan floated by Nowell in response to a recent legal decision about a beach in Kennebunkport that could have legal ramifications for other coastal towns.

Nowell brought up the issue of buying sections of beach in response to a Feb. 4 Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruling against the town of Kennebunkport’s claim of public access to Goose Rocks Beach. The ruling means that private owners of beachfront land can deny recreational use of beach they own, down to the low-water line.

The board put off any decision or scheduling of future discussions until at least March 10, when it will meet in executive session with the town attorney about litigation involving landowners blocking public access along a section of the Cliff Walk.

Town Manager Robert Yandow said it is possible the March 10 agenda could contain an additional executive session item related to legal advice regarding beach ownership.

Nowell said there are four York beaches – Long Sands, York Harbor, Short Sands and Cape Neddick – that are at least partly privately owned but widely used by the public.

Nowell said there is no current issue with public access on York beaches, but he feels the town should be proactive on the issue.

“I think it’s a discussion that’s about 30 years overdue,” he said.

But Selectmen Kinley Gregg and Mary Andrews both questioned why Nowell brought up the issue with newspaper and television reporters before the board met to talk about it. Gregg took exception to Nowell’s public comments that a property owner could put up fences to block a section of beach if the owner felt so inclined.

“I don’t understand why you’re basically challenging people to put up barricades on the beach,” Gregg said.

Selectman Torbert MacDonald said the discussion is premature until the board can meet with the town attorney to discuss legal options. He said once the board has a better handle on those options and the impact of the Goose Rocks ruling, discussions about the issue should be held in public.

Residents who spoke during a public comment section of the meeting encouraged the board to consider all options, including making arrangements with property owners to ensure continued public access through easements, leases or similar arrangements.

“If it’s going to be for sale at market price or some exorbitant price, I don’t think it’s worth it,” said resident Ron McAllister. “Don’t spend money that’s limited because it may have consequences of not spending money on things that are much more important.”

Resident Charles Stacy questioned whether it is best to “let sleeping dogs lie” since no one currently is restricting public access.

“I really do think we’re opening a can of worms about the beaches,” he said. “This could turn into an awful expensive operation for the town.”

Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:

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