Lobsterman Richard Holt, left, and boat repairman Chip Flanagan await low tide to do hull repairs on the lobster boat Hilma Frances, which is tied to pilings along an alleyway between Custom House Wharf and Portland Pier. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

A lawsuit filed in Cumberland County Superior Court could limit historical access to the working waterfront by commercial fishermen in Portland.

The suit, filed in April by Soley Wharf LLC, seeks to clarify ownership of a waterfront alleyway behind 100 Commercial St. that connects Custom House Wharf to Portland Pier. That alleyway behind Thomas Block has been used for decades by commercial fisherman to service their gear and boats and is also a popular place for tourists to take pictures of the city’s working waterfront.

Attorney Glenn Israel, who represents Soley Wharf, said the suit does not aim to eliminate public access or prevent commercial fishermen from loading and offloading gear or accessing their boats. But it would allow the owners to enforce rules against fishermen parking their vehicles or storing their traps in the alley for long periods of time – a long-standing problem that, Israel said, has been the subject of negotiations.

“We weren’t making progress trying to negotiate a resolution, because the fishermen kept raising the issue of ownership and saying because there was no ownership we didn’t have standing to police what was going on back there,” Israel said. “So we decided we needed to establish ownership in order to have footing from which to negotiate.”

But fishermen and the city councilor who represents the waterfront area fear the lawsuit will ultimately lead to loss of waterfront access.

City Councilor Belinda Ray, who represents the district, said she hopes the city will be “fully participating” in the fight to preserve public access, especially for commercial fishermen.

“The working waterfront and access to the waterfront for the public are of incredibly high value to this council,” Ray said. She noted that the city adjusted the zoning last year to prohibit new hotels and restaurants along the waterfront and piers. “(The waterfront) is a precious commodity and access needs to be protected.”

Visitors enjoy the scene Wednesday from the alleyway behind 100 Commercial St. in Portland. A lawsuit concerning the alley’s ownership could lead to limits on its use by fishermen. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

The lawsuit the alley has triggered is the latest in a long history of legal clashes over recreational and commercial access to Maine’s coast.

Such battles often involve centuries-old deeds and court rulings, and typically pit the rights of neighboring property owners against the rights of the public or commercial fishing communities. Recent disputes over beach access in Kennebunkport and a shorefront path in Cape Elizabeth have gone to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

Soley Wharf LLC, which is affiliated with East Brown Cow Management, filed suit in April against Proprietors of Portland Pier, the Corporation of the Proprietors of Portland Pier and Portland resident Mary Green Barthelman.

The suit alleges that Barthelman wrongfully asserted ownership over the western portion of the alley and granted “certain easement rights” to the city in 1985. Israel said Soley Wharf acquired the property in 1998, but the western portion of the alley was not clearly conveyed through a complex series of land sales dating back to 1857.

In a response to the suit, Barthelman’s attorney, Joseph Talbot, denies that his client wrongfully asserted her ownership, while acknowledging that she was acting as a sole proprietor of the Proprietors of Portland Pier. They’re asking that the suit be dismissed.

Talbot did not respond to email or a voicemail requests for an interview.

Israel said in an interview that the lawsuit stems from a longstanding dispute between Soley Wharf and commercial fishermen who rely on the alley. The two sides have been trying to negotiate an agreement that would continue access for fisherman, he said, while also prohibiting them from parking their trucks or stacking their traps in the alleyway, but the fisherman claim Soley Wharf has no standing.

“The position of my client has been the fishermen don’t have a right to park a truck there and leave it all day, or to pile their lobster traps in the pedestrian easement and leave those there for long periods of time,” Israel said. “And that, too, is not going to change. What they’re hoping is that by establishing title to that property they’ll have better standing to enforce those restrictions.”

Meanwhile, supporters of the working waterfront sent the Press Herald photos of vehicles that do not appear to belong to fishermen blocking access to the pier, as well.

The Portland City Council held an executive session Monday to discuss the lawsuit but no public action was taken. Mayor Kate Snyder declined an interview request and referred questions to Danielle West-Chuhta, the city’s top attorney. West-Chuhta said the suit was being brought to the council because the city has an easement “in/on/over the area in question.” She did not respond to a question about whether the city would formally join the lawsuit.

Ray said the council may not need to take any formal action, but she declined to say what guidance the council gave West-Chuhta.

On Wednesday afternoon, lobster boats were tied up along Custom House Wharf and Portland Pier and lobster traps were piled up on the docks. One vessel, the Alice O, of Cape Elizabeth, was dry-docked along the alleyway for repairs. Several mask-wearing tourists were photographing what is one of the most iconic scenes of Portland’s working waterfront, or were simply taking in the view while seated on a series of flat granite blocks.

Lobsterman Bill Coppersmith said that roughly 100 commercial fishermen a year use the alley to load and offload traps and other gear, and use the shallow area as an inexpensive way to dry dock and service their boats, whether it’s removing rope from their propeller wheel or scraping barnacles off the hull. Boats are brought alongside the alley at high tide and rest on the gravel at low tide. He said that access is “very important” to fishermen.

“You can’t always afford to pay thousands of dollars to get your boat hauled out of the water,” Coppersmith said.

Soley Wharf has installed an electric vehicle charging station along the alleyway. And Coppersmith said the owners “have been pushing it” for a while to see whether they could get away with blocking access and parking vehicles there. At times, fishermen have not been able to access the waterfront there and it’s even been difficult for pedestrians to walk through because of the vehicles, he said.

Coppersmith said fishermen have had access to that area for over 40 years and that state and local officials should do everything they can to preserve access to the working waterfront, which is disappearing amid coastal development.

“We can’t afford to lose another inch of commercial waterfront property,” he said.


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