CAPE ELIZABETH — More than 900 residents have signed a petition supporting an ordinance that would prohibit the seven-member Town Council from releasing public rights to the town’s shoreline by a simple majority vote.

Rather, the ordinance would require a transfer to be supported by a super-majority of five councilors, or approved by a public referendum.

The group submitted 914 signatures to the town clerk on Wednesday afternoon, Jan. 2.

The petition drive was led by members of Save Our Shoreline Access Coalition, a grassroots group formed during a continuing dispute over whether the town should accept or vacate its claim to various “paper” streets.

Paper streets are roads that were laid out in subdivisions, but never built or accepted by the town. Vacating would mean the town forfeits its right to ever develop the streets for public access, a move SOS opposes.

The Town Charter requires petitions to contain signatures of 10 percent of registered voters – 837, according to SOS – to be considered by the council. If the required signatures are verified, the council will have 30 days from the date of filing – in this case, Feb. 1 – to hold a public hearing, followed by an additional 30-day period during which councilors can pick a date to either adopt the ordinance or send it to referendum.

The charter gives the town attorney the authority to modify the proposed ordinance to avoid confusion or illegality, without altering its substance.

Council Chairman Jamie Garvin on Wednesday said he was aware of the petition drive and had seen partial language, but not a final proposal in its entirety.

“The Town Charter clearly spells out action required by citizen-initiated ordinances,” Garvin said. “Once the town has formally received the petition, we will review the documents, verify the signatures, consult with the town’s attorneys, and then take any necessary action.”

Town Manager Matt Sturgis on Thursday morning said that if enough signatures are verified, he expects councilors to schedule a public hearing at their next regular meeting on Jan. 14.

According to a statement from SOS, the ordinance is a “well-crafted measure that reflects heightened public interest in public resources along the shore, without imposing unreasonable administrative burdens on town government. … It respects the role of the council as elected representatives, but requires a greater consensus among councilors to release public rights, or an alternative public referendum vote.

“The ordinance also respects the role of the citizens in town government by limiting its application to those town properties that council-appointed committees such as the Fort Williams Park Committee or the Conservation Committee have identified as worthy of retention.”

The town for several years has wrestled over public rights to seaside paper streets. In November 2017, rather than permanently accept or vacate rights to paper streets shown in a 1911 plan for the Shore Acres subdivision, the council opted to maintain the rights, which were extended 20 years on Oct. 5, 2016.

The town hired a moderator to hold public meetings to seek a community-wide compromise. But, in January 2018, several residents sued the town, claiming ownership of an undeveloped stretch of Surfside Avenue along the coast between Pilot Point Road and Algonquin Road.

Under a settlement agreement, which was met in a mediated session between the plaintiffs and Town Council representatives, the plaintiffs would have dropped the lawsuit and paid $500,000 to the town’s Land Acquisition Fund. In exchange, the town would have had to vacate its rights, which could limit public access.

Following a public hearing, the council in September 2018 rejected the settlement and the litigation has continued.

On Thursday morning, Garvin said the town and plaintiffs are still involved in depositions and preliminary motions, and that he wasn’t certain of overall timing or expected next steps in the lawsuit.

Jocelyn Van Saun can be reached at 781-3661, ext. 183 or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @JocelynVanSaun.

Members of the Save Our Shoreline Access Coalition deliver a petition to Cape Elizabeth Town Clerk Debra Lane Jan. 2 for an ordinance that would require a super-majority Town Council vote or approval by referendum before the town can forfeit the public’s right to shoreline access.

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