Two of the three fish houses on the waterfront property known as Barleyfield Point on Orr’s Island in Harpswell on Monday. One of the co-owners of the property is suing to force the other co-owners to sell to him. The other owners are fighting the suit saying the property has been open to the public for decades. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Twenty-six people share ownership of a small piece of working waterfront in Harpswell. One owner wants the courts to force the other co-owners to sell him all of it.

John ‘Jack’ Sylvester owns a piece of Barleyfield Point, a 1.45-acre waterfront property on Orr’s Island that has been passed down to an ever-expanding list of shareholders since the 19th century. It’s historically been open to the public for recreation and fishing.

But in a legal complaint filed in 2022, Sylvester alleges that the property has deteriorated because it’s “unmanaged and unsecured” with too many owners and “uncontrolled access and use of the Point.”

And in a bench trial that starts Tuesday in Cumberland County Superior Court, Sylvester is asking the courts to allow him to buy the property from the other 25 owners, most of whom would have to sell the land unwillingly.

But the landowners are fighting back. Members of the fishing industry and the Harpswell community have stressed the importance of Barleyfield as a “discrete working waterfront” – a term used to describe small coastal properties with working wharves and often ambiguous ownership that are a vital link for lobstermen trying to survive Maine’s shrinking working waterfront and loss of infrastructure.

They fear that if Sylvester becomes the sole owner, access will be cut off.

Advertisement

“People are concerned,” said Kevin Johnson, who grew up next to Barleyfield Point and currently chairs the Harpswell Select Board. “It’s been there for generations, and all of a sudden it could be gone.”

And, they say, Maine’s working waterfront will take yet another hit.

“These discrete working waterfronts are culturally significant. And they take some of the pressure off the larger wharves. But what happens when those go away? ” said Monique Coombs, a Harpswell resident with the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association. “People within the community see the value enough that they’re trying desperately to save this property. And most people on Harpswell would love to see the shareholders succeed.”

Sylvester has not said he will cut off public access, but it’s an outcome many fear is evident.

The defendants and Sylvester declined to answer questions because of the active litigation.

MANY OWNERS, MANY MORE WHO USE THE LAND

Advertisement

According to the legal complaints, Barleyfield Point, on Orr’s Island in Harpswell, originally had just two owners: Fidelia Prince and Alice G. Robinson. In 1891, they sold that land to 12 local residents as tenants in common, according to the lawsuit. It has since been passed down through the generations, 12 becoming nearly 30. After the lawsuit was filed, some sold their shares to other owners.

According to the lawsuit, each share (sometimes divided among multiple people) is either one-eighteenth or one-ninth of the property. Sylvester has the largest stake in the property, with two one-ninth shares.

The waterfront property known as Barleyfield Point on Orr’s Island in Harpswell. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Over the years, Barleyfield has become a community staple. It’s been used for swimming lessons, hiking and sea-glass hunting, Coombs said. It’s used as a research site to study baby lobster populations. And Barleyfield is also used by three lobstermen, who have wharves there where they store and prepare gear.

Those three wharves represent the discrete working waterfronts that Coombs says might be the most prevalent kind of working waterfront in Maine.

“This property is not unique. When you drive along the coast of Maine, you’ll see these small discrete working waterfronts peppering the coasts that signify these are working waterfront communities. Their ownership is ambiguous and there’s not a lot of economics going across the dock,” Coombs said. “Very often they may be utilized by only one or two lobstermen, maybe they’re just allowed to use the property because the homeowner lets them or maybe it’s a handshake agreement with the town.”

That’s been the purpose of Barleyfield Point over the years. But Sylvester asserts in the lawsuit that the neighborhood where Barleyfield is located is “no longer an active center of commercial fishing” and is misused by the fishermen who work there.

Advertisement

“Currently, the Point is often cluttered with discarded gear and debris, most of it left by non-owners. Two fish houses and wharfs, used mainly for recreation, are in good condition; two others are in poor, unusable condition,” the lawsuit states. “Frontage at Flag Cove is covered with large rocks periodically placed by the Town to stabilize the Lowell’s Cove Road after washouts. A timber ramp built for launching of small boats is in disrepair and unusable.”

The waterfront property known as Barleyfield Point on Orr’s Island in Harpswell. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

‘I DON’T GET IT’

Sylvester also asserts that the property is not well-suited for the lobstermen to use; that these small waterfronts are no longer as important for fishing industry; and that lobstering is a tough and expensive industry to get into, which “restricts demand for purchase of shore facilities.”

Coombs and Johnson say they – and the Harpswell community at large – believe that Sylvester is wrong and out of touch.

“I don’t get it,” Johnson said. “And to be honest, I have trouble with Sylvester’s motivation for doing what he did.”

Sylvester is asking the court to force owners to sell the property at “fair market value.” Sylvester is also requesting that the proceeds be doled out to cover the costs associated with the sale and court action, to the owners of fish houses and wharves, and the shareholders.

On the other end, the defendants are now trying to force Sylvester out of the picture.

“(We) will be asking the Court to give them the opportunity to buy out the ownership interest of the Plaintiff who brought suit so that they can take the necessary steps to preserve and protect Barleyfield Point, which has served as a unique community and public resource and working waterfront for decades,” said Bill Kennedy, an attorney at Drummond and Drummond representing 23 of the shareholders.

The outcome of the trial, which is scheduled to run until Thursday, will be determined by Superior Court Justice Thomas McKeon.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.