2015-08-21 / Front Page

Cape set to keep most paper streets

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

CAPE ELIZABETH — The vast majority of 50 so-called paper streets in Cape Elizabeth may be retained by the town following recommendations made by members of the planning board and conservation commission.

“By far, the recommendation was to retain because, in many, many cases, there appeared to be a useful and logical use to which the streets were being put, or might be put in the future for the benefit of the town,” said planning board Chairman Peter Curran at the Aug. 10 town council meeting.

Paper streets are roads laid out as part of subdivision plans but never actually built. Although never accepted by the town as public roads, many of the 50, which date as far back as 1899, are retained as public rights-of-way. In some cases, the streets are used today as utility corridors, public trails, cut-throughs commonly used by children walking to and from school – even driveways. In some cases, the existence of a paper street is all that keeps certain property lots from being inaccessible from an existing road.

The Cape Elizabeth Town Council last weighed in on the issue of paper streets in 1997, when the state Legislature passed a law erasing from the record – or vacating – any roads recorded in the registry of deeds before September 1987, but not actually built by September 1997. The law allowed towns to retain “incipient dedication,” or rights, to any paper streets it specifically exempted from abandonment.

At that time, the town council retained its interest in all but eight of 51 paper streets then on the record. The state law has a 20-year sunset clause, however, and the town council must re-assert its interests in any unbuilt roads by September 2017. In April, the town council adopted a public engagement process for dealing with the streets.

The first part of that process included review by the planning board and conservation commission of the existing 50 paper streets, which includes north and south portions of some of the 43 road plans kept active by the 1997 vote. Following final recommendations made to the council by the planning board and conservation commission on Aug. 10, the council plans to conduct four to six informal neighborhood meetings to solicit public comment on a variety of topics, including the paper streets issue.

According to Town Manager Michael McGovern, the council will then wrap up the process with a traditional public hearing and a final vote sometime in 2016.

“I think we’ll probably be the first community in the state that begins a process that really gives everyone time to think and to look, so that it doesn’t come to the very last month,” McGovern said in April, when the public engagement process was set.

“Most people don’t care about the paper streets in other parts of town, they care about them in their neighborhoods,” he said at the time. “In this particular case, I think we really need to have an opportunity for neighborhood input where neighbors are hearing neighbors.”

The need to engage the public on paper streets became clear in 2013, when the conservation commission circulated a master plan proposal to extend the town’s Greenbelt Trail system. One section of the extended trail was slated to use an unbuilt section of Surf Side Avenue, originally laid out in 1911, in the Shore Acres neighborhood. That plan pitted neighbor against neighbor, with some calling the proposal a “wonderful addition” to the trail system, and others — some of whom had come to view the unbuilt road as an extension of their own back yards, providing “remarkable” ocean views — opposed to the point of threatening lawsuits.

In January 2014, the town council voted 5-2 to accept the Greenbelt Trail master plan, including the Surf Side Avenue section. In the latest review, both the planning board and the conservation commission recommended the council vote to retain public interest in the paper portion of Surf Side Avenue as a “potential trail.”

Planning board and conservation commission members agreed the town should give up its interests in three paper streets in advance of the 2017 decision deadline. Nominated to be stricken from the record are an unbuilt section of Balsam Road, located near Two Lights State Park, and an unnamed road off Pine Ridge Road in the Broad Cove subdivision. The Balsam Road piece dates to 1968 and is a mere 30 feet long, while the unbuilt way off of Pine Ridge Road, laid out in 1964, is 200 feet long.

Also up for elimination are the north and south sections of Dearborn Drive, each 90 feet long, in the Brentwood subdivision. However, both groups advised the council to work toward retaining a public easement across the northern section of Dearborn Drive, due to its traditional use as a walking path by schoolchildren.

In addition, different recommendations were given on a handful of roads. The planning board said the council should give up, or vacate, public interest in the southern section of Stoneybrook Road, located in the Mountain View subdivision, and Allen Road, a paper street off Mitchell Road. The Stoneybrook section, laid out in 1912 and just 50 feet long, abuts town open space, while Allen Road, designed in 1984 is 400 feet long.

For its part, the conservation commission said the council should vacate Thompson Road, located off Shore Road. A 1,780-footlong “street” designed in 1917, it crosses a wetland and is reportedly used as a private road. The planning board had initially reached the same conclusion, but reversed itself following a July 21 public hearing, deciding instead that the town should retain its rights in order to provide access to undeveloped lots in the area.

Superior Court cases on Maine’s Paper Streets Act have confirmed that when an unbuilt subdivision road never formally accepted the town is vacated, ownership goes to abutting landowners as far as the “centerline” of the road. Stoneybrook, Dearborn North, and the unnamed street off Pine Ridge Road, all abut open space owned by the town.

“I just would like to commend the planning board for spending a lot of time looking at every single one of these (roads) in a very comprehensive manner,” said Councilor Jessica Sullivan.

“And also the conservation commission,” added Councilor Molly MacAuslan.

The paper streets issue may be discussed at a community roundtable scheduled for Sept. 17. However, that meeting, called at the behest of the council’s appointments committee, will reportedly be focused on the council’s goal-setting process. The neighborhood meetings that will specifically address paper streets have yet to be scheduled. Before they are put on the calendar, the council will first review the planning board and conservation commission recommendations in a workshop setting, to be scheduled.

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