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.
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.
Today, Nantucket has more access to the water – about 50 percent of the shoreline – than most beachfront communities, including Martha’s Vineyard and many towns on Cape Cod. Much of it has been secured through a combination of efforts over the past four-plus decades, from both the town and the island’s conservation groups. But it hasn’t been easy.
One Big Beach
Massachusetts law going back to colonial times gives citizens the right to pass between the high and low tide lines for “fishing, fowling and traversing.”
What it doesn’t guarantee is the right to spread a beach blanket on private property, or a way to get to the beach.
In 1999, the town attempted to take several of what are called paper streets in Surfside – public ways that show up on development plans but were never completed. At the time they were being used as paths to the beach. The idea was for the town to ensure each access. The effort was shot down by the courts, after neighboring property owners appealed the takings.
The One Big Beach program grew out of that defeat. It offers liability insurance, tax breaks and town maintenance and cleanup in exchange for easements guaranteeing public access and use of the beach. In some cases, portions of the paper streets were transferred to the abutting property owners in exchange for guaranteed pedestrian access down the center.
The town has so far recorded more than 30 One Big Beach easements around the island, the majority in Surfside, but also along the north shore and off Hulbert Avenue on Nantucket Harbor.
One of the easements guarantees access to the popular Steps Beach off the Cliff, a path always assumed to be public until town officials discovered it had never been formally recorded as town property. They learned that fact after the property owner hired a police detail in the mid-2000s to keep people off it at night.
One Big Beach has more than tripled the amount of public beach in Dionis, and tied together a large chunk of the south shore from Surfside to Maddequecham.
The program, spearheaded by Murphy and Fee, debuted in 2003 but was slow to get off the ground, as property owners were wary about the adequacy of the town’s beach-management policies, and wondered how they would benefit from granting an easement over their property.
Some of those concerns were allayed following the development of a town-wide beach-management plan, which included descriptions and maps of town-owned and managed beaches, and denoted what town agencies were responsible for managing what beaches.
One Big Beach, as it moved forward, has also been hampered by a lack of staffing. Its part-time manager position was eliminated in 2009, amid a larger town-services restructuring in the wake of the 2008 recession. The work is today done by the planning department and town administration, with oversight from the Select Board.
“The original idea of One Big Beach was to do it cooperatively, to encourage people to donate land that was already being used by the public anyway, and they would get a tax credit,” Fee said.
“It morphed into a trading thing when people wanted more in exchange. It’s very transactional at this point. We have to sort of triage, and focus on the areas that are most important.”
The first easements from shorefront property owners to the town were approved by the Board of Selectmen in December 2007, securing public access to a strip of Surfside Beach from Woodbine Street to Uncatena Street. On Brant Point, where stately homes overlook Nantucket Harbor and the daily comings and goings of ferries, sailboats and luxury megayachts, there are now defined public access points off Hulbert Avenue at Charles, Henry, Willard and Johnson streets.
“Those had all been discussed for years and voted at Town Meeting. The property owners initially fought them, but ultimately they were achieved cooperatively, without lawsuits, without costing the town damage awards and legal fees,” town planning director Andrew Vorce said.
Partners in access
By far, the largest portion of beach accessible to the public is owned by the island’s conservation groups, primarily the Nantucket Conservation Foundation and The Trustees. They include trails to the water and parking areas at several beaches, including Head of the Plains, Eel Point and the majority of Coskata-Coatue and Great Point.
The Nantucket Islands Land Bank was established by Town Meeting vote in 1983 and charged with acquiring open space for recreation, with an emphasis on beachfront property.
“Last year, we acquired from the Bartlett family 30 acres on the south shore leading to Ladies Beach with a lot of upland,” executive director Eric Savetsky said. “It checked two boxes for us: moorlands-management protection and a couple of beach access points.”
The Land Bank also owns the property at 40th Pole off Eel Point Road, and manages the adjacent beach for a private property owner, after town officials in 2002 spent months in negotiations to keep the beach open to the public. Fee called the effort a “model for the future.”
“The owner’s complaints were not being addressed. Too many cars were being parked there. People were leaving trash on the beach. He was finding condoms and beer cans in the dunes. His complaints were valid. His property rights were being abused,” he said.
With a staff dedicated to beach and open-space management, the Land Bank was the group to handle the job, Reinhard said.
“He didn’t want vehicles on his beach, and we took steps to address his concerns. We take care of enforcement. We control our property as it impacts the neighbors at 40th Pole. We put porta-potties on the beach. If there is some sort of an issue or violation, we follow up immediately. We have signage there, and we put posts in the sand to indicate how far vehicles can go. It’s working.”
The Conservation Foundation owns just over 18 miles of beachfront around the island, with the biggest chunks on Coskata-Coatue, Eel Point and at Head of the Plains. The Trustees controls much of CoskataCoatue and Great Point, whose trails and beaches are free to pedestrians, but vehicle access requires a $160 oversand-driving permit, when driving isn’t prohibited due to nesting shorebirds.
“We pride ourselves on our ecological-management strategies on the beaches we own, which part and parcel include public-access. But it has to be in concert. It cannot take priority over habitat conservation,” Conservation Foundation executive director Cormac Collier said.
Work to be done
The work continues. The Roads and Right of Way Committee is constantly looking for additional abutter’s ways to secure access to the water as new construction closes off previously-existing paths, Reinhard said.
“There are places in Monomoy where fishermen would like to have access to the beach, where scallopers, in the past, had access, and now there are big, giant houses, and gates,” he said.
Work is underway to secure another path to the water in Brant Point off Hulbert Avenue, Vorce added.
But opportunities to trade paper streets for beach access don’t exist everywhere, and not all property owners are open to granting easements across their property.
“There have to be different strategies in some areas. I’ve heard the Select Board talk about the possible need for simple acquisition of some of these properties. An island-wide goal is great, but there are significant tracts of private property, and it’s not easy to negotiate with everybody,” Vorce said.
The current Select Board recognizes the importance of continuing to secure beach access, but it’s not the only pressing matter before the town, Fee said.
“It’s making its way into the consciousness of the current board. Everyone understands the importance of it, but there are a lot of competing things right now. Sea-level rise and other issues before the town are going to take precedence. It’s going to take my lifetime and my kids’ lifetime, but we understand the importance of it,” he said.
Murphy, however, had higher hopes for One Big Beach when it began.
“In my view, at this point, all 70 miles of coastline should have been done,” said the former Select Board member, who moved off-island a decade ago.
“It would have snowballed. Originally, the name was One Big Beach, Once and for All. I would consider it a lost opportunity, the same as the town losing the waterfront boatyard property on Washington Street to the Great Harbor Yacht Club, and Westmoor Farm to the Westmoor Club.”
Fee however, is taking the long view.
“We’re chipping away at it. It’s one of those big-vision things, where the vision itself has done some good. It’s taken a while to grow, but it’s done some good,” he said. ///
Joshua Balling is an associate editor of Nantucket Today, and the managing editor of The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.