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Which way to the beach? Massachusetts wants you on the beach, not in court

What do you call a pack of lawyers working without pay for the public good?

A pipe dream? No, that's not the punchline. In fact, in this case, it's not even a joke. The answer is a new program in Massachusetts designed to help resolve contested public access cases more efficiently than the current court-based process.

The Coastal Access Legal and Mediation Service is a budding program that will offer free legal services and conflict mediation for appropriate access cases. The program lessens the contentious nature of a civil suit by offering a mediation alternative, and the free legal services can help legitimate causes that otherwise might not get off the ground. Ultimately, the goal is increasing public access to the Commonwealth's beaches.

The service is a combination of "two fledgling programs," said Geordie Vining, a coastal access planner with the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Management.

The idea began with the Coastal Zone Management Program, which had begun something called the Public Access Legal Service to act as a clearinghouse to provide pro bono lawyers to work on public access initiatives.

Meanwhile, the Department of Environmental Management was planning a clearinghouse to provide mediators.

"It was clear to everybody they should be the same program," Vining said.

The two programs were combined. The Coastal Access Legal and Mediation Service is a joint effort of the Department of Environmental Management, the Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, the Office of Coastal Zone Management, and the Office of the Attorney General.

Although the finer points - such as staffing and funding - are still being decided, the program should begin handling cases soon.

Mediation is a voluntary, confidential process in which people from opposing sides agree to work together with a neutral mediator to find solutions to disputes. The process can be an alternative to court, or a way to a solution if legal processes fail. Mediation does not reduce anyone's legal rights and in Massachusetts, documents prepared by a qualified mediator or that are contained in a mediator's file are confidential.

Here's how the program works: It starts with a dispute involving public access. This dispute could be a property owners association that believes a developer is encroaching into the public domain along a stretch of beach. It could be a beach town facing a legal challenge with a developer who wants to close a section of the beach. The interested party fills out an application, asking for either legal aid or the appointment of a mediator, or both.

A Coastal Access Legal and Mediation Service committee reviews the application and comes to a consensus on one of the following options:

A legal referral can take many forms. It could be as simple as a title examination or as complex as litigation. The committee selects an attorney from a network of volunteers to handle the case.

If a referral within the service is inappropriate, the committee tries to identify other ways for the applicant to find help.

An obstacle for the new program has been staffing. There is no dedicated staff. Instead, people like Vining work on the project as much as possible while keeping up with other duties.

But every cloud...

"On the other hand," Vining said, "the need to get a lot of different people involved has led to what is really a great strength, which is its interagency nature."

There is now a healthy group of individuals working to bring the program to operational status. With a few assistant attorneys general here, a deputy counsel of the Executive Office of Environmental Affairs (an umbrella agency including the coastal management program) there, a dispute resolution specialist thrown in for stability, a legal staffer experienced with training workshops, and Vining, there is a solid backbone of interested parties. Toss in some invaluable volunteers and the program has a bright future.

"It's taken months," Vining admits. "We started this [program] in the summer and it's taken until basically now to finally get everyone comfortable and knowledgeable about what we're doing," he said.

The frustration will be worth it, however. Peg Brady, director of the Massachusetts Coastal Zone Management program, points out that there are many things to like about this idea.

"This is a way attorneys who are compelled to do some pro bono work can do something focused on public access," she said.

Those attorney can help preserve the public's rights of way along the coast.

The following are case examples:

A beach town owns a piece of property designated for conservation. There exists a history of conflict between the town and a neighborhood association that owns a piece of property next to the one in question. The town erects a sign declaring its property open to the public.

The neighborhood association puts up their own sign, blocking the town's sign. There are also reports of neighbors harassing people who attempt to use the property to access the beach. After doing some survey work, it is discovered that the neighborhood association is encroaching on town land, but the town is hesitant to go to court. It is looking for a more peaceful alternative.

In another example, a man's elderly mother lives next to a beach access that she had grown accustomed to using. A new owner has entered the picture adjacent to the access; he puts up signs declaring the access private property and bars entry. The man and his mother want to know what their rights are.

Lawyers with the Massachusetts program would perform the title search, and help with whatever legal strategy might be required, if it can be demonstrated there were legal rights due to the public. That, in turn, could take them to a mediator, "because maybe the legal court route is not going to lead to anyone's satisfaction," Vining said.

Lurking behind the optimism the program engenders is the big "B" word: Budget. So far, specific funding for the program hasn't been needed as the primary expense has been staff time.

"We're at the point now [that] it will probably cost some money to put on these training sessions, and hire some trainers. We're broaching how to fund that and where we can make requests and how much that is going to cost."

For more information on Massachusetts' Coastal Access Legal and Mediation Service, contact Geordie Vining with the Department of Environmental Management at 617-727-9530, ext. 528.

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