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

A lawsuit over the ownership of a small parcel of working waterfront in Harpswell has been settled with the 26 owners of the property agreeing to a deal in which a nonprofit will be formed to buy the land and keep it open to the public.

The settlement was reached on the third and final day of a trial in Cumberland County Superior Court this week in which John “Jack” Sylvester, of Harpswell, had been bidding to have the court force the other 25 owners to sell him their shares of the land known as Barleyfield Point. Instead, a new nonprofit called Friends of Barleyfield Point will be buying the land on Orr’s Island with the intent of keeping it open for public use and commercial fishing.

Sylvester and the other owners of the property, which the town says is 1.45 acres, declined to comment about the settlement on Friday because the details were still being worked out.

Sylvester had filed the lawsuit in 2022, asking the court to force the other shareholders to sell Barleyfield Point to him, saying it had been misused and mismanaged under too many owners. Some in Harpswell feared that if Sylvester had won his claim, Barleyfield would have been shut off to the commercial fishermen and residents who have had access to the land for over 100 years.

The settlement is not only a success for shareholders who would have had to unwillingly relinquish their ownership of the land. Advocates say it’s also a win in the fight to preserve Maine’s shrinking working waterfront.

“To see a property like that be protected that is very rewarding,” said Monique Coombs, a Harpswell resident with the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association. “I don’t think it’s going to be perfect, but I think anything that we can do to try to preserve the access, especially for commercial fishing is incredibly important right now.”


Barleyfield is something of a community tradition in Harpswell, residents have said.

It’s been used as a site for lobster research, swimming lessons, hiking and sea glass hunting. And over the last century, it’s also been host to commercial fishing. Currently, no commercial fishermen use the four wharves along the shoreline, though three lobstermen, with approval from some shareholders, store and prepare gear on the property.

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

Each share (sometimes owned by multiple people) is either one-eighteenth or one-ninth of the property, the lawsuit states. Sylvester has the largest stake in the property, with two one-ninth shares.

Sylvester filed suit in 2022, alleging that the property was falling into disrepair and becoming unusable.

“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. … A timber ramp built for the launching of small boats is in disrepair and unusable,” the lawsuit states.


Under Maine statute, the courts can force the sale of a piece of property when there are too many shareholders for feasible ownership.

Some in the community questioned Sylvester’s motives and wondered what he intended to do with the land if he became the sole owner, fearing that he might cut off access altogether.

That would have been an unfortunate turn for Orr’s Island residents, Coombs said. But more importantly, Barleyfield has served as a “discrete working waterfront” offering an informal place for lobstermen to work and survive Maine’s shrinking working waterfront and loss of infrastructure.

“They might not have economics going across the dock, but they’re incredibly important infrastructure for gear storage and maintenance and for lobstermen’s sense of space that takes the pressure off the larger wharves,” Coombs said. “And there’s cultural significance there. They’re really important shared spaces. And I think they’re vulnerable – not just to developmental transition, but also because they’re disappearing.”

Preliminary reporting suggests 60% of Maine’s working waterfront was either severely damaged or destroyed by two storms that battered Maine’s coast in January, according to the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association.

While the lawsuit was originally focused on Sylvester’s claim to ownership, the attorney representing 23 of the shareholders had said on Monday that he would be asking the courts to force Sylvester out of the picture.


It didn’t come to that.

While the parties would not discuss the agreement Friday, The Harpswell Anchor reported some details provided Thursday by attorneys for Sylvester and the defendants when they announced they had reached a settlement. If the settlement is finalized, the Friends of Barleyfield Point would purchase the site from all shareholders for $345,000 – $160,000 of which would go to Sylvester. Another co-owner who has a fish house and wharf on the property also would get a larger payout. The remaining $140,000 would be split among other owners, with payouts based on their shares.


The shareholders of Barleyfield Point are not the first to take this kind of action.

Fishermen, businessmen and teachers formed the Boothbay Region Maritime Foundation in September 2018 to purchase a large commercial lobstering wharf on Boothbay Harbor. The nonprofit wanted to preserve what they feared would be another of Maine’s working waterfront communities that has disappeared.

Coombs hopes that the Friends of Barleyfield Point can be an example on charting a path forward for other at-risk discrete working waterfronts.


“I do hope Barleyfield sets a precedent, I hope we figure out a way to create a template for when other properties are in these precarious positions, people have like a menu of, ‘We can do X, Y and Z, and that’ll save it,’ ” she said.

The Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association will be the fiscal sponsor of the nonprofit.

The settlement is not yet documented and finalized, said Peter Murray, Sylvester’s attorney.

“We’ve reached an agreement in principle, but there’s formal agreements to be drawn. And heavens knows what could happen at that time,” Sylvester said on Friday, declining to comment further.

Bill Kennedy, the attorney representing the other shareholders, did not respond to questions Friday.

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