If the rain ever stops falling and it finally warms up enough for people to start thinking about going to the beach, good luck finding much access to the sand to put a towel. Not only are the public beaches almost impossible to get into during July and August because of crowds — even with the high prices that towns charge for parking, but if a shoreline walker is lucky enough to get on a beach and strays off the public sand, he can expect a private police person to flag him down and direct him back to where he came from. That’s because here in Massachusetts, an old colonial law allows shorefront property owners to restrict access to the low water mark. Back in the 1700’s, in order to encourage dock building and other commercial activities, the legislature made what was called “King’s grants” to people who owned the beach. Today, unless you are toting a shotgun or a fishing pole (the old fishing and fowling exception) you are not allowed to walk on a private beach. Technically, that could mean a place like the Brewster flats where the tide goes out about a mile and a half is off limits. I’ve seen shorefront houses with TV cameras on the roof providing 24 hour coverage against trespassers. That is true even in the winter!
So it was good to see a win for the little guy in New Jersey. You may recall that a couple of years ago Hurricane Sandy devastated the coast, washing out beaches, parking lots, and many of the adjacent houses. To re-build the beach, the Army Corps of Engineers spent millions of public tax dollars building dunes and trucking in loads of sand. And guess what? The homeowners that benefitted from this didn’t want outsiders to use the beaches when the job was done. But the state of New Jersey, to its credit, is making these homeowners share the sand with the people who actually helped pay for it. This is because the state ruled that a reconstructed beach had to have a public easement. In other words, if private property owners wanted to have the Corps fix their beaches, they had to let the public use them.
Reading about this reminded me of how the Massachusetts town of Sandwich had to deal with beachfront property owners when two years ago the Corps agreed to move some of the sand being dredged from the Cape Cod Canal to a badly eroded section of vulnerable shoreline. When the property owners learned that to get sand on their section of beach, they would have to sign a public easement to let regular people sit on it they balked and took the matter to court. The delay in sealing the deal cost the town an extra million dollars and limited the sand replenishment just to a section of public beach. It was a classic case of “I’ve got mine, screw you” on the part of the beach property owners. If only we were in New Jersey.