People fight over beach access as sea levels and property values ​​rise in Massachusetts


Updated July 25 at 12:05 p.m.

Summer traffic in Gloucester has become so extreme in recent years that residents can’t always get out of their driveways or run weekend errands in town.

Overwhelmed by the onslaught of traffic to its well-known public beaches, the city this season launched an online reservation system especially for non-residents to secure parking spaces. City leaders hope the tool will alleviate frustration for residents and visiting bathers.

Other coastal cities are taking similar approaches to limiting the number of out-of-towners who can park near their shores. This dynamic of tightening access and growing demand in Massachusetts is fueling growing tensions on the shoreline between would-be beachgoers and gatekeepers controlling who accesses the beach and who does not. The situation is made worse by the fact that many beaches are shrinking due to the effects of climate change, eroding the already small amount of public coastline.

“As more and more people want to use the coast and private landowners may want to better protect their own property, we are seeing an increase in conflict,” said John Duff, professor of environmental law and policy at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. “And it’s not just in Massachusetts, it’s pretty much any coastal state.”

In 12 months of reporting, GBH News ventured to 20 beaches from Cape Town and the Islands to Salisbury, spoke with over 50 people and analyzed beach policies and state spending in dozens of coastal communities . This investigation found that although the state invests millions of taxpayer dollars in city-owned beaches, many of these beaches are entirely or mostly off-limits to the general public through a system of exclusion orders on the local parking. And despite state resident surveys in 2012 and 2017 showing strong demand for more beaches, Massachusetts hasn’t acquired any new recreational beach property since the late 1980s.

More demand, more conflict

For years, visitors hoping to find a parking space at Gloucester’s Good Harbor or Wingarsheek beaches could wait for hours in a line of vehicles only to be turned back into the car park by a sign that read ‘No more non-residents “.

“We like to share what we have with the general public,” said City Council President Valerie Gilman, “but during [the COVID-19 pandemic] in particular, we had huge crowds coming in.”

In other coastal towns, residents’ demand for beach access is crowding out non-residents.

The town of Scituate sold 7,812 annual beach stickers last year, of which only 366 – less than 5% – went to out-of-towners.

In nearby Marshfield, beach administrator Cindy Castro said the parking lot at half-mile-long Rexhame Beach holds about 290 cars. Asked about access for non-residents, she replied, “I’d be happy to have them, but we just don’t have the parking lot.”

Castro said the number of residents buying beach stickers is increasing every year. Newly built homes, including large apartment buildings, add to this demand.

“There are more year-round residents coming here,” she said. “We had a housing explosion.”

Boats and waterfront homes are seen on Nantucket Island, Mass.

Oleg Albinsky/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Andrew Kahrl, a historian at the University of Virginia who wrote a book on the history of restrictive beaches in Connecticut, said exclusionary practices often follow an increase in real estate values.

“More and more of these coastal communities reflect the interest of wealthy landowners,” Kahrl said. “As housing markets and communities become more exclusive, public access is diminishing or even completely exhausted

While median home sales in Massachusetts have more than tripled over the past 30 years, many coastal communities have seen their real estate values ​​rise at much higher rates — in some cases by a factor of five, the data shows. of the Warren Group, a Boston company. monitoring of real estate data.

Rising property values ​​on the coast and a growing demand for access to the coastline are fueling conflict.

On Martha’s Vineyard, where wealthy beach landlords hire guards to chase away intruders, such disputes are commonplace.

Last year in Nantucket — where the median price of a single-family home exceeds $2.2 million — summer resident Boots Tolsdorf decided to go scallop-shelling on a private beach with signs ” No Trespassing” displayed from the dune down to near the waterline.

In Massachusetts, state law allows beach ownership to extend to the low tide line, but Tolsdorf, who is 80, said she was below that line and a few meters from the water when the beach owner approached her and told her to leave. .

An older woman in shorts and sandals stands on a sandy beach next to a "No violation" sign.
Boots Tolsdorf, a summer resident of Nantucket, holds scallops next to a private beach.

Chris Burrell / GBH News

“I’m sure I got tremors in my knees about it. But I’m a pretty strong woman, not physically, but I thought I had a right to be there,” she said. “I told him I was on the other side of that line and it really wasn’t private property. It was a public beach.

Tolsdorf said the seaside owner pushed her twice. Nantucket police have charged the man with assaulting a person over the age of 60, and the case is pending in the island’s district court.

The Massachusetts Land Court is assessing another dispute over beach access: Half a dozen Rockport residents unhappy with Back Beach’s noisy divers have sued the town, claiming the beach is in fact private.

“We don’t want to prevent people from using the beach. We just want some peace and quiet,” said one of the complainants, Stephanie Rauseo, 81. “It got to the point where on a Sunday or Saturday morning we were woken up at 6 a.m. with more of a hundred divers. divers sound tanks just ten feet from my bedroom window.

Kayakers and even birdwatchers trying to access the shore told GBH News they were chased away by private beach owners.

Kent Harrop, a retired minister who lives in Beverly, was kayaking in his hometown last year when he decided to paddle to shore to stretch his legs. Within five minutes he said a beach owner told him to get off.

“I told them I had a cramped leg and would be gone in about 10 minutes,” Harrop said. “I was told I had to leave immediately, otherwise they would call the police.”

Harrop moved to Massachusetts after spending 20 years in Oregon, where all beaches are public.

In a state where only 12% of beaches are open to all members of the public, rising sea levels and increasingly powerful storms are compounding the problem, reducing beach access at dozens of sites. beloved coasters.

These effects of climate change ate swaths of Crane Beach in Ipswich, a popular 4-mile-long beach about 30 miles north of Boston.

“The beaches, they’re shrinking,” said Tom O’Shea, natural resources expert at The Trustees of Reservations, a nonprofit conservation organization that owns Crane Beach.

As O’Shea stood near an eroding dune where tangles of grass roots protruded from a cliff, he said the increasing frequency of large storms had had a major impact.

“We’ve lost the equivalent of more than 84 beach football pitches in the last 30 to 50 years,” he said.

“We’ve lost the equivalent of over 84 beach football pitches in the last 30 to 50 years.”

Tom O’Shea, natural resources expert at The Trustees of Reservation

Further south, sea swells forced Orléans earlier this year to abandon its parking lot at Nauset Beach and build a new one on higher ground.

And at Martha’s Vineyard’s most popular public beach, South Beach Public Beach in Edgartown, erosion is quickly becoming the biggest obstacle to access. The sands have shrunk so much that its left fork is mostly submerged at high tide.

John Marabello and his wife recently sat in South Beach, reflecting on how quickly the landscape had changed. He said that in the 30 years they have rented property on the island, they have never seen the water as high as when they last visited.

“We came on Wednesday, around 9:30 in the morning, [and] there was literally no beach,” he said.

A woman and a man, both in bathing suits, sit on canvas lounge chairs on a sandy beach.  Groups of other people are seen behind them.
John Marabello and his wife sit on South Beach in Edgartown, Mass., July 15, 2022.

Jenifer McKim / GBH News

Edgartown Conservation Officer Jane Varkonda said storms and rising sea levels have washed away 70 feet of beach over the past three years.

“On a good high tide, there’s probably no beach to sit on,” she said. do we bring staff to the beach?

South Beach is one of the few public beaches on the island. It’s also one of the last recreational beaches acquired by the state, taken over by eminent domain in the 1980s for just under $4.5 million.

The state is now spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to protect that investment: revitalizing the beach, restoring the dunes and relocating the bathhouses.

But even though the Edgartown Parks Department – ​​which manages the beach for the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation – is seeking an additional $726,495 in public funds for this now vulnerable public beach, there is no guaranteed, Varkonda said.

“We are caught off guard almost every time a storm comes,” she said. “The beach is extremely low and extremely narrow. And we’re really worried about what’s going to happen.

GBH Deputy Editor Jenifer McKim and GBH News interns Emma Foehringer Merchant and Hannah Green contributed reporting for this story.

Do you have a personal story about facing barriers at the beach? We would love to hear from you. Email us at [email protected]

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated where Nauset Beach is.


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