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Coastal towns are making it more difficult for the public to get to the shore


Winston Churchill once said in a speech, we shall fight on the beaches. He was referring to resisting an invasion during World War II. But his line could just as well apply to beaches in Massachusetts this summer. Here's Chris Burrell from our member station GBH in Boston.

CHRIS BURRELL, BYLINE: Under blazing sun and temperatures in the 90s, here's what happens when I try parking at a beach in Marshfield, 30 miles south of Boston.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I'm sorry. You can't park. It's beach sticker only, and it's really packed. So I can't let anyone without one in.

BURRELL: Got it. And is these only stickers for residents?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I'm pretty sure, like, you can only be a resident to get a sticker.

BURRELL: It's a similar story up and down the Massachusetts coastline. Towns with so-called public beaches either exclude nonresidents outright or they create parking and fee regulations that make it difficult or too expensive just to have a day at the beach. And those restrictions are only getting tighter, says Cindy Castro, the beach manager in this town. While French fries sizzle in the beachside snack stand, Castro says a housing boom means more residents are using the beaches, squeezing out parking spaces for out-of-towners.

CINDY CASTRO: We just had a 250-unit apartment building open up. So that puts more pressure - more residents, less nonresidents. We're staying static with the number of spaces that we have.

BURRELL: Other beach towns, including some on Cape Cod, are also clamping down to limit access for out-of-towners, blaming the onslaught of beachgoers during the pandemic. Parking tickets in Plymouth, the famous landing site for the pilgrims, quadrupled after town leaders banned nonresidents from parking near one beach. Similar tensions are playing out in Rhode Island, Florida and Puerto Rico between beachgoers and the gatekeepers, such as condo developments or state laws impeding access.

In Massachusetts, it's also a case of high demand for too little sand. Just 12% of ocean beaches are open to all members of the public, thanks to a statute allowing private ownership all the way to the low-tide line. And despite increasing demand, Massachusetts has not acquired any new recreational beach properties in more than 30 years. Meanwhile, coastal property values have skyrocketed.

ANDREW KAHRL: As housing markets and as communities become more exclusive, public access decreases, if not completely exhausted.

BURRELL: Andrew Kahrl is a historian at the University of Virginia who wrote a book about restrictive beaches in Connecticut. He says exclusionary practices follow a rise in real estate values.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: In a few minutes, we will be docking.

BURRELL: Off the coast of Massachusetts, on the island of Nantucket, where the median price for a single-family home tops $2.2 million, summer resident Boots Tolsdorf decided to go beachcombing for scallop shells last summer. But the shells lay on a private beach with no trespassing signs posted from the dune to near the waterline. Tolsdorf, who is 80, says that just minutes after she ventured off the small public beach, an irate beach owner pushed her twice.

BOOTS TOLSDORF: When he approached me, I'm sure I had some shaking in my knees about it. But I'm a pretty strong woman, not maybe physically. But, I mean, I thought I had a right to be there, and he certainly had no right to treat me that way.

BURRELL: Nantucket police did not charge Tolsdorf with trespassing, but the man is charged with assaulting a person over the age of 60.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Jump on the board going that way. You'll ride the wave.

BURRELL: On upscale Martha's Vineyard, beach guards shooing away trespassers are commonplace. But at the island's most popular public beach, erosion is quickly becoming the biggest barrier to access. The eastern side of South Beach is nearly submerged at high tide. Local officials say storms and rising sea levels have eaten away 70 feet of sand in the last three years. The state is now spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to re-nourish the beach, plant dune grass and relocate a bathhouse. Longtime beachgoers like Sherry Sebesta, visiting from upstate New York, say the volleyball nets and lifeguard stand are gone. There's no room for them.

SHERRY SEBESTA: The other day, there was really just, like, 10, 20 feet of actual sand to sit on. It has changed so dramatically so quickly. Within five, 10 years, it seems like it'll be definitely pushed back up to the dunes.

BURRELL: Martha's Vineyard isn't alone. Rising seas forced one Cape Cod town earlier this year to abandon its parking lot and build a new one on higher ground. Climate change, bigger storms and coastal towns toughening up access - it all means getting a day at the beach is only getting harder.

For NPR News, I'm Chris Burrell. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Chris Burrell