Whose beach is it anyway? -August 2019

by: Joshua H. Balling

photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger

Surfing at Cisco, fishing off the beach at Eel Point, taking the family to 40th Pole. Nantucketers have always seen the beaches as part of their birthright.

But the fact is that just nine miles of Nantucket’s shoreline are publicly owned. Another 30 or so are owned by conservation groups, and largely accessible to beach-goers.

Settlers Landing beach access

Like everything on Nantucket, beaches and beach access have been subject to a changing island economy. As property values began to climb through the 1980s into the 1990s, and beachfront land changed hands, long-used paths to the water began to disappear, as new owners closed off their beaches to the public: at Steps Beach, along Hulbert Avenue, and on the north shore. What was always assumed to be public – wasn’t.

“In the past, beach access wasn’t much of an issue. People just assumed the ways were public, until the boulders went in, the hedges went up, and no-trespassing signs started appearing. The

places Nantucketers used to be able to horseback ride, and have access to the beaches, were disappearing,” said Allen Reinhard, who has been on the front lines of beach-access efforts on Nantucket for years. The former Select Board member sits on the town’s Roads and Right of Way Committee, the Land Bank Commission, and is a Conservation Foundation ranger in the summer.

“Nobody ever really worried about if people had a little picnic on their beach, or went crabbing, or whatever. But driving on Surfside Beach in the late 1990s started to get fraught. The property owners didn’t mind people using the beach, but all the cars started to infringe on their enjoyment of their property,” added former Select Board member Finn Murphy, an early champion of protecting beach access for all.


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