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Meeting to decide on proposed paper-street settlement set for Sept. 19

The Town Council will meet at least twice more before deciding whether to approve a proposal for the town to vacate its right to accept an undeveloped portion of Surf Side Avenue as a public way, yet retain rights of access for homeowners in the Shore Acres subdivision.

Following a public hearing on Sept. 10, 2018, councilors scheduled an executive session with the town's attorney for 6 p.m. Monday, Sept. 17; and a special public meeting for 7 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 19, when they plan to make a decision. The Sept. 19 meeting will be held at Town Hall and televised over CETV Channel 3.

The proposal would settle a lawsuit filed by owners of five homes that abut Surf Side Avenue, an oceanfront "paper" street that appears on the 1911 subdivision plan for Shore Acres but was never built or accepted as a town way. The suit, filed soon after a 2016 vote by the Town Council to extend the town's right to accept the street for public use, maintains that the town forfeited that right by failing to accept the street, and by allowing abutters to use it as extensions of their back yards.

The street appears in the town's 2013 Greenbelt Plan as a potential walking trail.

The settlement proposal would have the town vacate its rights in the 800-foot segment of Surf Side Avenue abutting the plaintiff's homes, in exchange for a $500,000 payment from the plaintiffs and their promise not to interfere with access rights that currently belong to all homeowners in the subdivision.

After nearly two hours of public testimony for and against the proposed settlement Sept. 10, councilors agreed to schedule the Sept. 19 meeting for the vote, but also asked to meet again privately with the town's attorney to clarify comments made by speakers at the hearing, specifically about land acquisition and Maine paper-street law; and, to get a better sense of how much the paper street is worth.

Councilor Chris Straw echoed the frustration of some speakers who said a decision could not be made without knowing the value of the land. "I'm looking for an offer that is fair to the town, and if it's fair to the town I'm going to take it," Straw said. "But I can't make that decision without some facts for me to decide if it's fair or not."

Prompted by a request from Councilor Valerie Randall, Town Manager Matthew Sturgis said he would work with staff to gather assessment values for the five properties, with and without the portion of Surf Side Avenue that would be added if the town vacated the paper street. Staff will also research what the town has paid for public-access easements in the past, although, in the words of Council Chair Jessica Sullivan, none have been for oceanfront property.

The Sept. 17 executive session will also allow the town's attorney Durwood Parkinson to answer questions about the risks of whatever action or decision the council makes.

The settlement proposal was drafted during a daylong mediation July 19 among the plaintiffs: Imad Khalidi, David Leopold, Kara Leopold, Andrew Sommer, Susan Ross, Stewart Wooden, Julie Wooden and Pilot Point, LLC; and, representing the town: councilors Jamie Garvin and Sara Lennon, council Chair Sullivan and Town Manager Sturgis; and their attorneys.

A 60-day stay is included in the proposal, setting a deadline of Sept. 19 for a decision. Parkinson said if any extension were negotiated it would only be brief.

The settlement proposal would be binding on both parties and could not be appealed, Parkinson said. If approved, the $500,000 payment would go into the town's Land Acquisition Fund for purchase of properties for public access in other areas of town. At this point in the negotiation process, Parkinson said, the amount in the proposed settlement is not negotiable.