Beach battles: Lawmakers pushed to increase public shoreline access

Steep parking fees and other factors can pose barriers to visiting beaches, with some advocates saying restrictive policies reinforce segregation and racial inequality.

Image by Paul Brennan from Pixabay

Image by Paul Brennan from Pixabay

Nauset Beach in Orleans, Massachusetts, is a 10-mile stretch of sand situated along Cape Cod’s Atlantic coast.

If you want to spend a day at this idyllic spot bordered by beach roses and dune grass, get ready to pay: A one-day parking pass for non-residents costs $30.

“Parking fees of $30, $40 for a day at the beach is just prohibitive for a lot of families,’’ said Massachusetts state Rep. Dylan Fernandes, a Democrat whose district includes a portion of Cape Cod, along with the upscale islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. “We’re shutting out people who are low income and that’s a real problem.”

Steep parking fees assessed to out-of-towners aren’t the only barriers the general public faces in accessing the shoreline. Other impediments include a lack of public transit, beach erosion caused by climate change and Colonial-era laws limiting shoreline access on private property.

Advocates for open beaches say such restrictive policies reinforce segregation and racial inequality. 

“There’s a history of racism and discrimination at U.S. beaches that a lot of people might not be aware of,” said Staley Prom, an attorney with Surfrider Foundation, a nonprofit environmental group dedicated to protecting beaches and increasing access to the coast. “People from inland areas should also be able to visit our treasured beaches. Public beach access [is] for everyone, not only for the few privileged people who can afford to live on the ocean.”

Lack of access to the shore is an issue in many states, according to research by Surfrider. The organization is involved in a lawsuit in California that began more than a decade ago, when a wealthy property owner in Half Moon Bay locked a gate leading to the beach and hired private security personnel to keep beachgoers out. Surfrider has also filed legal challenges to open up beaches in New Jersey, Florida and Texas, among other states.

More recently, the battle here was over beach access during the pandemic. 

Beachfront homeowners are asking the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to hear arguments in a case about whether the Northwest Florida county violated the property owners’ constitutional rights by preventing them from using privately owned portions of the sand amid efforts to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. In part, the homeowners contend that the county’s decision was an improper “taking” of property and that they should receive compensation.

Beach closures were a closely watched issue early in the pandemic, as images of crowds of beachgoers, including spring breakers, flashed across the country while the numbers of COVID-19 cases began to soar. Walton County, between Panama City and Destin, has seen a building boom in recent years, with multimillion-dollar homes popping up along its white-sand beaches.

The lawsuit focuses on people being unable to use areas of the beach that they own, rather than on beaches being closed to the general public. Under Florida law, privately owned beach property generally extends to a point known as the mean high-water line. Attorneys for the plaintiffs also have cited property owners’ “littoral” rights, which provide access to the water.

Before that, however, there was a fight over the constitutionality of “customary use,” a concept that has long allowed the public to use parts of beaches that are privately owned. The Florida Constitution ensures public access to portions of beaches “below mean high water lines,” often described as wet areas of beaches. But customary use involves dry-sand areas of beaches above the mean high water line that are often privately owned.

A 1974 Florida Supreme Court opinion allowed the public to use those areas of beaches. Again, Walton County was part of a series of legal battles about beach access, at least in part sparked by a controversial 2018 state law that put restrictions on customary use. 

Battle over beach access often comes down to money

The problem is particularly acute in coastal New England, said Andrew Kahrl, a professor of history and African American studies at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. 

“In places where you have high concentrations of wealthy people coupled with high demand, you’re going to see efforts to restrict access to coastlines as well as these types of legal and political battles,’’ said Kahrl, whose 2018 book, “Free the Beaches: The story of Ned Coll and the Battle for America’s Most Exclusive Shoreline,” details the struggle against exclusionary beach policies along the Connecticut shore, including in the wealthy enclave of Greenwich.

“Wealthy communities try to use every legal means at their disposal to restrict access to what is legally a public resource,’’ Kahrl said. "It's symptomatic of a broader set of exclusionary practices that are characteristic of more affluent communities in New England and around the U.S. They took shape alongside forms of racial and class exclusion in housing markets and in public school systems and, in many ways, complemented and reinforced forms of segregation that were being practiced in these other arenas."

This year, lawmakers in Connecticut and Massachusetts tried unsuccessfully to pass legislation to make beaches in their states more accessible.

Fernandes and state Sen. Julian Cyr proposed a bill in Massachusetts to repeal a statute that’s been on the books since Colonial times. It bars the public from engaging in recreational activities on private beachfront property within the intertidal zone, the sandy strip between the low- and high-tide lines. (Under the law, the only uses permitted in the intertidal zone are related to fishing, fowling and navigation.)

Chased off the beach

Massachusetts has among the most restrictive beach access laws in the nation: Just 12% of the state’s beaches are fully accessible to the general public, according to Fernandes’ office. He’s spoken to people who say they were chased off the beach for walking in the intertidal zone.

“You hear from people all the time who have been screamed at or berated or had dogs turn on them for just walking down the beach and to me, that is really problematic,’’ Fernandes said. “The intertidal zone is wet, it has the ocean over it at least twice a day."

"I think it’s a fundamental right that everyone should have access to the ocean,’’ he said.

The Massachusetts bill would have added recreation to the list of allowable activities within the intertidal zone. Fernandes said he is prepared to make a new push next year, even though he believes the issue will eventually be decided by the court.

Legislative efforts in Connecticut to address exclusionary parking policies also failed to win passage. One bill would have barred communities that receive state transportation aid from restricting parking near public beaches and recreation areas. Another proposal would have capped the amount of money municipalities could charge out-of-town residents for parking at local beaches.

Both measures drew strong opposition from suburban officials, who bristled at what they view as state overreach. 

“Approval of this bill would be devastating to local communities and would have huge budgetary impacts on local municipalities,’’ Anthony R. Calabrese, parks and recreation director for the shoreline town of Fairfield, said in written testimony provided to a legislative committee earlier this year.  

In Fairfield, residents pay $25 for a seasonal beach parking pass and out-of-towners are charged $250. Removing the town’s ability to set parking policies would add more traffic to already congested beach neighborhoods, Calabrese said.  

Connecticut cities and towns began jacking up out-of-town beach parking fees following a 2001 state Supreme Court decision affirming the right of nonresidents to use public beaches, Kahrl said. The lawsuit was brought by the Connecticut chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

“These are communities where wealthy people live and they have no desire to open up [the beaches] to people who don’t,’’ Kahrl said. “There is a greater awareness and more activism on the issue [of beach access] and we’re seeing lawmakers introduce these bills but we’re also seeing a great deal of pushback. Wealthy communities are feeling more emboldened in many ways to protect their privileges.”

The News Service of Florida contributed background. A version of this story was first published on Route Fifty

NEXT STORY: Florida pumps brakes on turnpike extension

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.