Maine towns head to court over border dispute

A view of the present Kittery and York border sign on Route 1. York has sued neighboring  Kittery over precisely where the town border is located.
A view of the present Kittery and York border sign on Route 1. York has sued neighboring Kittery over precisely where the town border is located.David L. Ryan/GLOBE STAFF

YORK, Maine — What’s 329.58 feet between friends? Especially when they’ve been neighbors for nearly 400 years, and the boundary between them has always been agreed upon. More or less.

Now, however, the towns of Kittery and York find themselves locked in a dispute over a football field-long parcel of land along busy Route 1. York is preparing to march into Superior Court to argue that adjacent Kittery has long held dozens of acres that rightfully belong to York.

“We’re responsible for everything that happens in our boundaries, and we want to know where our boundaries are,” said Stephen Burns, the York town manager.


So far, York’s overtures have met with pique and counterfire from Kittery — the southernmost and, it claims, oldest town in Maine. (Some York officials contest that designation, too, but that’s another story.)

“The Town of Kittery will vigorously protect and defend her borders against any and all claims, now or in the future,” Judith Spiller, the Kittery Town Council chairwoman, wrote to her York counterpart.

The issue surfaced in 2018 after York developer Duane Jellison had bought property on Route 1 that he believed was evenly divided between York and Kittery. His surveyor concluded, instead, that the majority of the property is in York.

“No one would have guessed it was that far off,” Burns said, citing the modern-day difference from the original, straight-line boundary drawn in 1653.

Stephen Burns, York town manager, stood on land that is now in Kittery but would be in York if a lawsuit is successful.
Stephen Burns, York town manager, stood on land that is now in Kittery but would be in York if a lawsuit is successful. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

The survey’s findings came as news to York officials. Since the straight line was drawn 367 years ago, property changes and long-forgotten handshakes had incorporated wobbles and bumps into what became an accepted, meandering boundary from Brave Boat Harbor to the present-day Town of Eliot, which borders both Kittery and York.

"Nobody cared about it,” said Robert Yarumian, who owns Maine Boundary Consultants in Buxton. “Nobody really knew where the town line was.”


But what the wobbles gave to Kittery, they apparently took away from York.

“Boundaries shift through time. It might have been from this tree to that pile of rocks to that bush," said Edwin Churchill, former chief curator of the Maine State Museum. “You can see where that goes."

In this case, straight to court: The York selectmen have authorized Burns and the town attorney to file a lawsuit asking the court to override the old handshakes and declare the straight-line boundary authoritative — which would restore about 40 acres to York, the town manager said.

“If the court says it should be a straight line from Point A to Point B, it’s got to be a straight line,” Burns said.

More is at stake than future property tax obligations. Two cell towers rise in the current no-man’s land, as well as a graveyard whose remains would change addresses from Kittery to York if the new survey is deemed accurate.

Burns said York had sought an amicable solution. “The selectmen said to Kittery, would you work with us? And they said no.”

Spiller, the Kittery councilwoman, wrote to her York counterparts that her town “appreciates that a change in border may hold some potential benefit for a single property owner."

"Reason, however, does not support or encourage the time, expense, or potential ill will that such a dubious legal challenge might create between friends and neighbors,” she added.

Kittery Town Manager Kendra Amaral did not respond to multiple requests for comment.


The seeds of the dispute were planted at the dawn of English colonization in the Province of Maine. Dating to 1622 and chartered by the crown in 1639, the province enjoyed royal protection until King Charles I was defeated by Oliver Cromwell and subsequently beheaded in 1649.

The Puritan authorities in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, whose strict religious beliefs aligned with Cromwell’s, saw an opportunity to seize Maine settlements — and lay their hands on the area’s vast timber resources, too.

Armed Puritans headed north to Maine in November 1652. In short order, the inhabitants of Kittery, and then York, were ordered to submit to Massachusetts law and survey their boundaries. The result was the straight line, drawn the next year, that’s caused the recent fuss.

Kittery is still smarting, apparently, from the Puritans’ encroachment.

“This particular boundary was established through aggression, imposed by decree from the Massachusetts Bay Colony,” Spiller wrote. “Rife with arbitrary limitations set forth and enforced by armed militia, it reflected neither the established property lines of the time, nor those before or after it.”

More than a century after the Puritans laid down the law, the Massachusetts Legislature ordered new surveys in Maine, which was then controlled by Massachusetts and would not become a separate state until 1820.

Those surveys, conducted independently in 1794 by York and Kittery, settled on the Colonial straight line — but with a twist. The surveyors also included an alternate boundary, which they drew with dashes to show the wobbles and turns that had popped up over the intervening years.


“Unfortunately for both towns, later [surveys] chose to ignore the 1652 straight-line requirement and follow the red pricked line," lamented a court-appointed boundary commission in 1992, when a border dispute between the towns of York and Eliot was considered.

Now, it is likely up to the York County Superior Court to mediate the dispute. In the end, any changes will need approval by the Legislature, officials said.

At least one nearby business owner isn’t concerned about the outcome.

“It’s six of one, half a dozen of another. I’ll still have to pay the same rent," shrugged Chris Fraize, who runs Canine Solutions, which is near the disputed parcel. ”And anyway, I live in Berwick, so I really don’t care."

Burns, the York town manager, said he simply wants closure.

“If it’s here, it’s fine. If it’s there, it’s fine," Burns said. “Let’s just figure out where it should be and resolve it once and for all."

There won’t be any hard feelings afterward, he added.

“Kittery is a really cool town,” he said generously. "What’s not to like about it?”

Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com.