ROCKPORT — A rumpus has been building over the public's right to use portions of Rockport's Atlantic Path. 

The nonconforming 2-mile path, beginning on Cathedral Avenue, passes through private properties south of Andrew's Point. Because the trail predates the shoreside homes, it was grandfathered in as public space. 

Over the years, various property owners along the path's Phillips Avenue section have tried to keep the public from using the sections of path that cross over their land to no avail.  

In order for the Atlantic Path to remain open to all, state law requires it to be in continuous use by the public. If the path hasn't been used for an extended period of time, property owners could argue in court that there is no longer a need to have a public pathway on their properties. 

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, foot traffic on the Atlantic Path has been down. As a way to keep the community invested, Rockport resident John Penaloza organized a community walk down the trail from the Emerson Inn up north toward Andrews Point on Sunday as a way of "upholding the legal supremacy of and access to Rockport's historic rights-of-way for the public."

"This is very much a use-it-or-lose-it situation for our beloved paths," he said in announcing the walk on the Rockport Stuff Facebook page. 

More than 60 local residents joined Penaloza on Sunday's walk, during which some Phillips Avenue property owners came outside to show their support.

"Some (of the property owners) put up signs that welcome people and tend their sections of the path so it's easier to walk," Penaloza said. 

But, when the walkers reached the property of 33 Phillips Ave., they were met by members of the Rockport Police Department. 

"One policeman there, he said we're free to walk down by the blue rocks," Penaloza claimed. "I told him we're planning to go down this way (continuing on the Atlantic Path). He said, 'We'll be taking down names and dates of birth and you may be subject to trespassing charges."

Officers took down the majority of the walkers' information, including Penaloza's. As of Monday evening, Penaloza said the police had not contacted him. Police Chief John Horvath could not be reached for comment at the time of publication. 

According to the town assessor's field card, 33 Phillips Ave. is owned by the William J. Berens Trust  in care of Louise Macmillan of Andover. Macmillan could not be reached by phone. Two people at the 33 Phillips Ave. home Monday evening said they were not the property owners and declined to comment for this story.  

Selectman Paul Murphy confirmed the town is communicating with the owners of 33 Phillips Ave. regarding the Atlantic Path issue. 

"We understand the Atlantic Path is the utmost importance to the residents of Rockport," he said. "(The selectmen are) working with Rights of Way Committee and town counsel to work with the residents. I can't get into it much of it because there are lawyers involved, but hopefully we'll get to a resolution soon."

Penaloza asks those who want to keep the pathway public to post photos and videos of themselves taking the hike on social media. That way, it can be used as proof that the community is still interested in using the trail.

"I think it's a public right," he said. "It's a patrimony and people in this town should be able to preserve it. It stems from fishing and access rights from years ago. Simply having an unrestricted amount of wealth shouldn't allow you to take it away from other people."

Michael Cronin may be contacted at 978-675-2708, or mcronin@gloucestertimes.com.

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