Musings on the beach

The cold snap that swept the eastern seaboard last week finally finished off the flowerbeds. A few brave nasturiums and snapdragons succumbed to the low temperatures, so yesterday I pulled them up put the stalks in the compost heap, replacing them with a few dozen tulips and hyacinths for some April color.

This morning, feeling a little creaky in the lower back, I decided to follow some good advice received here, and go for a walk by myself. Being low tide, the harbor beach seemed like a good route, so I walked down to the town dock and down the beach, ducking under piers with some difficulty but reveling in the strong breeze from the southwest that seemed more full of oxygen than usual.

I realized that it was the first time I had walked that stretch of beach in perhaps 35 years, having spent hours there as a boy, exploring and catching minnows with total freedom. What kept me away for so many years?

One day, while walking along the shore, a shrill voice from the bluff made itself known.

“You! You! Get off that beach! This is private property! I am calling the police right now!”

It was a terrible experience. A new family had bought one of the lots on the shore and built an ugly house on it. They didn’t understand that beach had been walked across by generations of villagers, so they eventually erected an ugly green chainlink fence across the dry part of the sand, making the entire route impassable at high water.

Beach rights and the question of where property rights end on the shore makes for an interesting legal debate. I don’t question that it is wrong for someone to camp out with a beach blanket and cooler in front of someone’s private property, but the laws governing passage — and the precise definition of where a property begins and ends on the interface between land and water varies from one state to the next.

In Massachusetts, passage along the shore is guaranteed to fishermen, hunters, shellfishermen and people engaged in the act of “navigation” below the mean low water mark. Does that mean you can only wade in front of private property? That you can only cross on wet sand and must stay off of the dry sand?

Whatever the definition, some waterfront owners are charitable and post signs that encourage beach walkers, while others erect intimidating no-trespassing signs. I have been in confrontations while clamming or fly fishing when a property owner has belligerently demanded I move own, and I calmly explain the laws guaranteeing my rights to perform those acts. A good conversation has followed. I empathize with someone who pays over $25,000 a year in property taxes for a water view, only to see their beach fouled by beer cans and bait boxes left behind by inconsiderate surfcasters, or pitted with deep holes dug and left unfilled by clammers.

It is a terrible experience to have a simple nature walk interrupted by a confrontation, and I think the situation will worsen as the old timers on Cape Cod move own and are replaced by “wash ashores” who don’t care for the traditions of the past. As the population expands and pressure increases on a very fixed, very valuable resource, the situation is going to get worst, not better.

A number of years ago a very powerful state politician, William Bulger, president of the Massachusetts State Senate, was walking on a beach when he endured one of those contributions I described above. He made it a personal vendetta to change the laws — which are ancient and date back to colonial times — but I don’t think any meaningful reform ever occurred.

As property owners continue to try to improve their lots with piers (which pose a problem for walkers because they are a difficult barrier to duck under), and conservation groups try to keep those piers from being built, the mood is worsening. This is an issue I’d like to get involved with. My great-great grandfather, Thomas Chatfield, was instrumental at the turn of the last century in getting the town to reserve paths and lanes — known as Town Ways to Water — so the public could get to the shore to make their living. Those ways to water are threatened, obscured by property owners who don’t want people walking past their homes, sometimes planted with bushes or covered with utility sheds and swingsets. Identifying them and getting them cleared in the priority of the local shellfishing groups.
At my other online home — Reel-Time: The Internet Journal of Saltwater Flyfishing, the topic of beach access is a perennial topic.

Here are some background links on the issue:

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