IJʿ¼

Peaks Island resident Barbara Carter pauses while walking along a shoreline path on Wednesday. She says public access to the path is being threatened by a landowner’s claim that the area was abandoned by the city of Portland. But some island residents say the disputed area has been used by the public for decades and they are asking the city to defend public access. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

PEAKS ISLAND — On an island where just about every view from the shore is picture-perfect, the end of Ryefield Street feels special.

Even in February, when snow covers the narrow strip of land between several houses and the sea, your eye is drawn beyond the tangles of vines along the rocky shore across the water to the jagged cliffs of Cushing Island. Barely visible in the distance is Ram Island.

This spot on the south side of the islandhas been popular for decades forchildren at play, weddings and quiet moments by the water.

The strip of land is what’s known as a paper street, a road that was laid out on subdivision plans recorded at the county registry of deeds but never built. Peaks Island has dozens of them –some narrow paths, others dirt roads used regularly by islanders.

The one at the end of Ryefield is simply a stretch of lawn next to a gently sloping bluff. But it is now at the center of a passionate debate about precedent and public access.

On one side are the owners of 1 Ryefield St., who say the paper road has been long abandoned by the city and they should be able to claim it as part of their property. On the other are island residents who say the city should retain the rights to make sure the public can continue to use it.

Advertisement

“People are really concerned about losing the access to the shore that’s always been there,” said Barbara Carter, an islander who doesn’t live in the neighborhood but has been a vocal opponent of the ownership claim. “The bigger issue is that this is happening all over the island. We have people across the island who over the years have obstructed paper roads, claimed them as their own and blocked off access.”

The owners of 1 Ryefield say they have never tried to block anyone from the land and want to create a permanent public easement. They say they filed an ownership claim to the paper street next to their home as part of an agreement with the city to settle a problem with an unpermitted deck.

“It’s just a beautiful, beautiful spot. And we want the islanders and everybody to continue to enjoy it. Nothing has changed,” said Barbara Perry, who owns and lives on the property with her daughter, Holly Perry, and son-in-law Phill Arnold.

From left, Holly Perry; her mother, Barbara Perry; and Holly’s husband, Phill Arnold, stand at the edge of the bluff near their home on Peaks Island. The family has filed a claim to take over the paper road in front of their home in order to keep an unpermitted deck. But they say they want to create a permanent easement that would allow the public to walk across the land forever. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Still, more than 300 people submitted a petition in January asking Portland Mayor Mark Dion and the City Council “to take immediate action to safeguard and defend the public’s rights to continued access to the shoreland on Peaks Island.”

Debates about public access and paper streets are nothing new in Maine. Controversies over whether municipalities should retain or vacate their rights to these undeveloped roadways bubble up occasionally, especially in coastal neighborhoods where people have long enjoyed access to the shore using a right of way. In 2017, discussions in Cape Elizabeth about turning a paper street into a public walking trail in an exclusive waterfront neighborhood provoked shouting matches, harassment complaints, lawsuits and a petition signed by more than 600 people who wanted to preserve public access to the waterfront.

Maine cities and towns were supposed to decide by 1997 whether they would accept paper roads that were recorded in subdivision plans before 1987, but the law allowed them to delay these decisions for a staggering 40 years. As a result, many municipalities, including Portland, have yet to take action on all of them.

Advertisement

Portland last took up the issue in 2017, when it formally accepted some streets and made a list of others to be continued for another 20 years. In 2037, the city will have deal with all remaining paper streets by either accepting them or vacating its right to accept them. If a town accepts a paper street as a public way and builds a road, it has to maintain it in a safe and passable condition. Some towns have chosen to build a road. Others have been limited by other ordinances and left the streets as they are.

FILING A CLAIM

The Ryefield paper street controversy started with the Perrys’ deck.

Twelve years ago, they built the deck on the side of their home, over a concrete walkway installed in the mid-1950s. They admit they did so without a permit, but no one took issue until someone flagged it with the city.

The owners of this Peaks Island home, known as Lone Oak, built a deck more than a decade ago without a permit. Now they need to claim ownership of a neighboring paper road in order to keep it. But some island residents worry allowing the homeowners to take over the property could set a bad precedent for public access. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The family filed for an after-the-fact permit, and the deck passed the city’s building review. But the permit was denied because it became clear that the deck encroached onto the paper road drawn into a subdivision plan in 1900.

In April 2022, the family filed an appeal with the Zoning Board of Appeals, arguing that the city had vacated its right to accept the paper street, effectively expanding their property and thus resolving any setback and lot coverage issues.

Advertisement

“That small portion of Ryefield Street has been deemed vacated because the City did not formally accept it or include it on the list to be continued in 2017,” wrote Amy McNally, associate corporation counsel for the City of Portland, agreeing with the Perrys’ premise, in a December letter to the Peaks Island Council.

But even though the city considers the paper street vacated, the Perrys still had to file a claim for ownership with the Cumberland County Registry of Deeds. That filing last February opened a one-year period during which any property owner in their subdivision – including the City of Portland, which owns property in the neighborhood – could file a statement of interest, basically an objection to the Perrys’ ownership claim.

Two statements of interest from people who own property near Ryefield had been filed in the registry of deeds as of Thursday. The first came from Dana H. Smith, who owns 105 Seashore Ave., a waterfront home on the opposite end of the paper street from the Perrys. The other was filed by Russell Boisjoly and Carol Somers, who own 87 Seashore Ave.

From right, Barbara Perry, Holly Perry and Phill Arnold walk back up toward their homes on Peaks Island from the bluff they call “The Point.” Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Both filings say the paper street and adjacent shoreland have easement rights stemming from theirhistoric use by subdivision residents and the public. They also say Ryefield has been in continuous use and was not vacated by the city.

Attempts to contact Boisjoly, Somers and Smith about their filings were unsuccessful.

Anyone who files a statement of interest then has six months to file a lawsuit to ask the court to determine who has the right to claim ownership.

Advertisement

‘ROCKAFELLOW PASS’

Most of the opposition to the Perrys’ claim is directly connected to the broader issue of paper streets, said Carter, the Peaks resident concerned about public access.

An island committee asked the city in 2016 to accept all of Peaks’ paper roads to maintain public access, Carter said. The city didn’t do that and instead pushed off a decision until 2037.

Carter said she and others question the determination that the city had vacated its claim to the Ryefield paper street.

When the Zoning Board of Appeals took up the Perrys’ deck, an attorney for Lisa Chase, who lives in the neighborhood, wrote a letter objecting to the family’s application for a variance for the deck.

Peaks Island residents Barbara Carter and Dan Doane say public access to this shoreline bluff, with its view of Whitehead Passage and cliffs of Cushing Island, is being threatened by a nearby landowner’s claim that a paper road was abandoned by the city of Portland. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“We believe that the street at issue is one of the unnamed or proposed streets” in the subdivision plan, attorney Natalie Burns wrote. “Evidence from 1997 indicates that the City maintained its right to accept paper streets in many locations, and especially so on the Islands.”

Advertisement

Burns said it was particularly important to the city to maintain rights to paper streets that provide access to or are close to the water.

Island residents like Carter are worried about precedent.

“The situation at Ryefield is just one example of what could happen across the island,” Carter said.

People used to be able to move around the island using a network of paper roads, but over the years, some people have blocked them off or built sheds and fences on them, said Dan Doane, a lifelong islander who played on the bluff at Ryefield as a child and wants to make sure it remains accessible.

In December, the Peaks Island Council, which plays an advisory role to the city, heard more than an hour of public comment about the Ryefield Street paper street. That’s almost unheard of on the island, which has a summertime population of nearly 3,000 but just 900 year-round residents. Most who spoke were worried about losing public shore access.

Edward Wade Rockafellow, Barbara Perry’s grandfather and Holly Perry’s great-grandfather, in a photo from the first half of the 20th century on the the scenic bluff near their home that the family has always referred to as “The Point” on Peaks Island. Rockafellow is the one who purchased the first family property on the island. The Perrys say they now want to create a public easement on the neighboring property in his name. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

When the Perry family filed its claim of ownership notice last February, it included a permanent easement, which would allowpeople to continue to walk across their land to the shoreline and bluff, Holly Perry said. They named the easement the “Rockafellow Pass” in honor of Barbara Perry’s grandparents, who came from New York in the early 1900s and settled on the spot where she now lives.

Advertisement

“This is not a situation where we are OK with extinguishing rights,” Holly Perry said. “That’s not what we ever wanted to do.”

SETTING PRECEDENT

Carter and Doane say those who signed the petition remain hopeful that the city will protect the public’s rights. They’re asking the city to do so by filing a claim of interest of its own. They acknowledge that the Perrys’ claim includes the easement but believe it would not allow the same level of access to the bluff as they have now.

The petition also asks the city to “investigate and take action in response to all situations on Peaks Island involving the obstruction and misappropriation of paper roads and public lands by private property owners.”

Mayor Dion confirmed he received the petition and is aware of the concerns about Ryefield Street but said he could not discuss it further because city attorneys are working on the issue.

While the Peaks Island Council is not weighing in on Ryfield Street either, it has reactivated its paper roads committee, though it has yet to appoint new members or outline its intended work.

Advertisement

Carter said she welcomes that committee, especially because the city still has until 2037 to acceptor vacate paper roads.

“Our hope would be that they just accept what we’ve got here and let them continue to be the way they are,” she said of the paper streets on Peaks.

Phill Arnold stands at the edge of the bluff near his home on Peaks Island. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

For the Perrys, the fight has come to feel intensely personal, even though opponents of their claimsay it’s about the larger access issues at stake.

Phill Arnold, Holly Perry’s husband, said he’s been surprised by the level of animosity, and Holly Perry said she takes issue with the amount of “just absolute misinformation being spewed around.” Barbara Perry said she’s lost friends over the claim, though some people have apologized for signing the petition after learningabout the plan for apublic easement.

Holly Perry said she understands the concerns about public access to the waterfront, buther family plans to protect that access.

“Let us be the precedent here. We’re the ones doing the right thing,” she said. “This is what people should do.”

Related Headlines


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.