CAPE ELIZABETH — While some residents shared angry words, others called for compromise Saturday during a facilitated public forum meant to bring clarity to a townwide dispute over public waterfront access in the Shore Acres neighborhood.

At issue is whether the Town Council should finally accept or vacate its right to formally establish a public way along Atlantic Place and a section of Surf Side Avenue, so-called paper streets that appeared on a 1911 subdivision plan but were never completed.

Last month, several owners of multimillion-dollar homes on Pilot Point Road filed a lawsuit claiming they own Surf Side Avenue. Their backyards overlook the rocky shore where Surf Side Avenue appears on maps and the icy waters of Broad Cove just beyond.

Residents of Pilot Point Road in Cape Elizabeth say they own an undeveloped part of Surf Side Avenue that runs between their multimillion-dollar homes and Broad Cove, above. Staff file photo by Gregory Rec

Steve Bennett Sr. of Farm Hill Road drew applause at Saturday’s gathering when he read a statement urging the Pilot Point plaintiffs to drop their lawsuit and avoid wasting “our hard-earned tax dollars on your vanity.”

“Cape Elizabeth is starting to have a reputation as a place where people try to bully others to get more,” Bennett said. “These Pilot Point folks have spent the last 10-plus years expanding and renovating their little slice of heaven. Now that they are finished, it is not enough and they want more. … Just because you mowed a paper street and put a gazebo on it, (it) doesn’t make it yours.”

Others at the morning meeting were more conciliatory, including Todd Forsyth, who lives in Shore Acres and, like Bennett, supports accepting the paper streets as a public way.

“We all have to compromise and give,” Forsyth said, reflecting the sentiment of other participants who said the town should allow public access to the Shore Acres waterfront and address residents’ shared concerns about privacy, safety, security and environmental impacts.

Several residents noted that many of the town’s recreational trails run through neighborhoods and pass by homes without causing conflict or creating safety concerns.

DIVIDED AND COMMON INTERESTS

Forty-three residents attended Saturday’s morning session, the second of two facilitated sessions held at the Town Center Fire Station in one week. Divided into discussion groups, 32 participants said they favor accepting the paper streets, eight want to vacate and three want to maintain the town’s right to decide for a final 18 years.

A similar meeting held Thursday evening, also facilitated by Good Group Decisions of Brunswick, drew 41 residents: 32 to accept the paper streets, five to vacate and four to maintain the status quo. About a dozen people attended both meetings.

The council decided in October 2016 to extend its right to accept or vacate the paper streets for a final 20 years. When controversy over delaying their decision cropped up last summer, councilors wrestled with the issue through the fall before deciding to stick with the extension and hold facilitated community meetings to gain a better understanding of what they should do next.

Public access to a narrow walking path that ran along the Shore Acres waterfront became an issue in 2013, when the Conservation Committee identified the paper streets for potential recreational trail development in the town’s Greenbelt Plan.

The move set off alarm bells, triggered court battles and prompted clashes between the waterfront residents of Shore Acres and more than 100 inland residents of the subdivision, who for decades had enjoyed largely unfettered shoreline access as a deeded right.

“It was wonderful,” said Martha Palmer, who has lived in Shore Acres for 37 years. “It really changed when people built bigger homes along the waterfront and were less receptive to having people walk near their property.”

Palmer was one of three residents at Saturday’s meeting who said they wanted the town to maintain the status quo. However, she said she’d support the town restoring a walking path along the shore that would be accessible to the public.

LAWSUIT CLAIMS OWNERSHIP

The plaintiffs in the latest lawsuit are trying to stop that from happening.

They are Imad and Hulda Khalidi, David and Kara Leopold, Andrew Sommer and Susan Ross, Stewart and Julie Wooden, and Rock Dam Development LLC. The limited liability company held by members of Jay Chatmas’ family owns a half-acre lot on Pilot Point Road that’s listed for $1 million on a Coldwell Banker website.

The property owners claim the town’s right to establish a public way on that section of Surf Side Avenue has lapsed because they were allowed to encroach on the undeveloped street and “(exhibit) ownership in a manner inconsistent with a public way for a period exceeding twenty years.”

The complaint notes that the abutters have incorporated the paper street into their backyards, installing a wooden deck, a brick patio, a fenced-in garden, an established hedgerow, an irrigation system, stairways, lighting, stone landscaping and fencing.

Under Maine law, landowners can lose property rights if another person uses their land for at least 20 years uninterrupted. However, this legal doctrine, known as adverse possession, is widely understood to be ineffective in claiming ownership of government land.

None of the plaintiffs appeared to attend either facilitated session, but one of Saturday’s “vacate” participants said she was texting with one of the plaintiffs during the meeting.

The meetings were open to all town residents. The facilitators noted that Saturday’s participants shared common interests in preserving a sense of community, ensuring neighborhood safety and reducing controversy.

“I just wish we could come to an agreement,” said Kate Anker, a Shore Acres resident who favors vacating the paper streets.

“I’m concerned about (the environmental impacts of) having that amount of people walking on the path,” Anker said. “Even just building the path.”

The facilitators are expected to submit a report on the two sessions in March.

An ongoing petition signed by 1,220 residents asks councilors to accept the paper streets “so they will be protected forever and for all Cape citizens to enjoy.”

While many Shore Acres residents have deeded rights to access the 2,000-foot-long strip of land delineated as Surf Side Avenue and Atlantic Place, town officials say the general public currently doesn’t have the legal right to be on the paper streets.

Town Council Chairwoman Jessica Sullivan thanked the residents for their participation.

“It was terrific to hear many different views on the issue,” she said.