YORK — Residents have sent a strong message to a pair of landowners who have blocked access to a historic seaside trail, voting 2,314-722 in May to establish a $50,000 legal fund to protect the town’s access to the Cliff Walk, a picturesque beach-to-beach trail that traverses the land of 44 waterfront property owners.

In recent years, two York property owners, Milton Peterson and Richard Rubin, erected a fence to block access to two-thirds of the trail. 

The path, first used by fishermen, predates commercial development in York Harbor. Consisting of a gravel trail and a rock wall, it connects Harbor Beach to Cow Beach. A description or drawing of the path is written into the deeds of all 44 seaside properties along the trail, said Bill Wieting, a member of Friends of the Cliff Walk, a non-profit formed to protect and maintain the trail.

“All of these people bought their property with their eyes open,” Wieting said, including Peterson and Rubin.

York resident David Rivers and his family have walked the path for more than a quarter century. In general, hikers and property owners have lived in harmony, he said. A few years back, there was some trouble with bikers tearing up parts of the path, but it was assumed the problem was solved with the posting of new rules.

Then Rivers began to notice that Peterson was making improvements on the ocean-side of the path. Last year, Peterson erected a fence and Rubin built a wall blocking path access.

“I guess over the years [Peterson] decided he didn’t want to have people go by and look at his beautiful home,” Rivers wrote in an email. 

Neither Peterson nor Rubin would comment, but Peterson has argued through his attorney that the original Cliff Walk path was washed out and should end by a sewer easement at the edge of his property. The path past that point is overgrown and difficult terrain, and it isn’t well used, he asserts. Complicating matters, the path includes rocky ledge with no discernible trail.

York does not own a formal right of way for the path, said Wieting. However, he and others believe they are guaranteed continued access because generations of hikers have used the path without objection. 

“It’s analogous to squatter’s rights. If a path is used for a long time then it becomes a matter to standing of legal permanence, if you will,” he said.

A recent court ruling on a similar case in Kennebunkport seems to strengthen that argument, Wieting said.

In 2009, several Kennebunkport landowners sued the town to block access to Goose Rocks Beach. The landowners correctly argued that they owned the beach down to the low-water mark, according to Maine law. However, Superior Court Justice G. Arthur Brennan ruled in 2012 that since the public had been using the beach for generations without impediment, it should be allowed to continue to do so. 

“There is no question here that members of the general public have been using Goose Rocks Beach from ‘river to river’ for general purposes for at least one hundred years,” Brennan wrote in his decision. 

The decision is being appealed to the Maine Supreme Court. York Town Manager Robert G. Yandow says the town is waiting to see how the appeal fares before deciding on a course of action. The town is committed to vigorously defending its access to the trail, Yandow said, but he hopes to find a peaceful resolution. He warns, however, that no one should expect a quick resolution.

“It’s a complicated issue,” Yandow said. “If it were easy, it would have been solved a long time ago.”