Updated at 10:50 a.m. May 25

It’s called the Bay State. It has roughly 1,400 miles of coastline and a world-famous tourist magnet called “the Cape and Islands.”

Massachusetts should be a beach lover’s paradise, but access to the state’s shores is deeply uneven. Entry to most beaches is dependent on personal wealth, your home zip code and a shrinking allotment of “visitor” parking spaces clustered far from the water and a system of parking restrictions aimed at out-of-towners.

Just 12% of the state’s beaches are open to all members of the public, according to a coastal land inventory done by the state more than 30 years ago — the last estimate the state ever attempted, when the state had about 1 million fewer residents. That small percentage of public beaches often draw crowds so big on sunny days that parking lots fill to capacity, turning away carloads of disappointed travelers and people trying to seek ocean relief from hot temperatures as climate change has steadily increased the number of summer days that reach high temperatures over 90 degrees.

Beach access is also — perhaps unsurprisingly — an issue of racial inequity. The state’s urban beaches are free and easily accessible, but some of the beaches located in more racially and ethnically diverse communities such as Boston, Lynn and Quincy are also more prone to bacterial contamination that poses a health risk, sometimes forcing beach closures.

Now, three decades after state leaders sounded an alarm about the lack of public access to Massachusetts’ beaches, two state lawmakers are renewing the push to demand a bigger public foothold.

Private ownership

Given the rising demands for beach access and dwindling supply as many Massachusetts beaches are simply getting smaller through erosion and sea level rise, state Rep. Dylan Fernandes and Sen. Julian Cyr from the Cape and Islands are reviving an old battle cry to dismantle the state law dating back to the Colonial era that allows private ownership of beachfront property all the way down to the low-tide line.

“It is just a fundamental human right that no individual should own the ocean or the sand beneath its waves,” state Rep. Dylan Fernandes said in April, standing on a bluff over a Woods Hole beach. “I've gotten emails and phone calls from people all over the state just giving us horror stories of getting screamed at, chased with shovels and golf clubs, berated just for touching a little piece of private beach in the intertidal zone. And people are fed up with that.”

Under the state law, the only activities a private owner must allow in the “intertidal zone” — a strip of sand between the low and high tide lines — are fishing, fowling and navigation. Fernandes and Cyr’s bill, filed last year, would add a single and radical word to that list: recreation.

Virus Outbreak New England
People gather on the beach, Saturday, July 18, 2020, in the South Boston neighborhood of Boston to seek relief as temperatures in the city reached into the 90s.
Michael Dwyer AP

Allowing unfettered recreational access to the intertidal zone would create a seismic shift along Massachusetts’ strands, but the proposal is fraught with contention and would likely be subject to legal challenges from private beach owners demanding state compensation for devaluing their property.

Maine, Delaware and Virginia are the only other ocean-facing states in the U.S. that allow private ownership all the way to the low tide line. Maine’s highest court declared similar legislation in 1989 an unconstitutional taking of private property.

Fernandes and Cyr are far from the first Massachusetts politicians to wade into this controversy over beach access. After getting chased off a private beach in the early 1970s, the powerful former Senate President William Bulger tried and failed to undo the restrictive state law. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court signaled in 1974 it would rule against legislation infringing on the property rights of private beach owners.

While Bulger’s legacy kept alive some governmental efforts to increase beach access through the 1990s, a lack of funding and a lack of interest among coastal towns stymied any significant progress, said Geordie Vining, the former director of coastal access planning for the state between 1994 and 2000.

“I would go into towns and on the beaches to work with local officials and state representatives. And for the most part, everyone was telling me, ‘No, we don't want public coastal access here for all of the typical reasons of privacy and fear of crime and trash," said Vining, now a planner for the coastal city of Newburyport.

In 1998, the state started a program called Coastal Access Legal and Mediation Services (CALMS), aimed at helping citizens identify historic rights of way to the shoreline that had been forgotten or unused, and that could provide public access to beaches.

James Smith, a plumber–turned–beach activist in Plymouth, applied to the program for help after private waterfront owners hassled him for parking near a shoreline access point in the Cedarville section of Plymouth.

“I got tired of people telling me I didn't belong down there when I'd go down there to go fishing, and threats of having my vehicle towed,” said Smith.

After years of researching historic deeds, Smith said he unearthed proof that Plymouth had a right of way to the beach. But even with a pro bono attorney assigned by the state mediation program, he couldn’t get Plymouth leaders to pursue the case.

Vining can’t remember the program yielding any real progress. A coastal access conference at the State House held in the early summer of 1999 also gained little traction. And when Vining left for a new job, the state never rehired for the post of coastal access planner.

The state’s most recent initiative to address beach access came in 2017 when the Office of Coastal Zone Management launched an online beach locator: an interactive map of the Massachusetts coast dotted with hundreds of colorful beach umbrellas.

But the guide leaves it up to users to figure out which of those beaches are truly public.

“CZM makes no representations or warranties with respect to the definitiveness of the private or public ownership data presented in Coast Guide Online,” the agency wrote to GBH News. “All issues related to questions of ownership of coastal property should be investigated at the local Registry of Deeds.”

And the state clearly isn’t making an effort to promote the site. Over the last two years, traffic on the website averaged just seven views a day, according to documents obtained by GBH News.

Public beaches, but no public parking

Despite state surveys of residents in 2012 and 2017 showing a high demand for more beaches, the state has not acquired any new recreational beach properties since the late 1980s.

What the state has done is invest millions of taxpayer dollars into town-owned beaches, many of which are kept entirely or mostly off-limits to the general public through a system of beach stickers and exclusionary parking ordinances that make a day at the beach difficult or expensive for visitors to enjoy. Marshfield alone received a state grant of about $2 million to build a new seawall in 2015 at Sunrise Beach in a storm-prone section of town, where the nearest parking for nonresidents is just under a mile away.

"It's an ironic circumstance of people wanting state money, but not wanting taxpayers to actually come and be able to benefit from their investment."
Peter Shelley, senior counsel at the Conservation Law Foundation in Boston

Critics say this exclusionary system is inherently unfair.

“The difficulty of getting out to the beaches that are public through these local restrictions is a statewide issue,” said Peter Shelley, senior counsel at the Conservation Law Foundation in Boston. “You're not allowed to park, and that's the way they defeat the public's ability, from a practical standpoint, to get out onto a beach that they otherwise would have every right to be on.”

Coastal towns own more than 35% of the publicly owned beach frontage in Massachusetts, according to the 1990 state inventory, and many towns are making it harder to access those beaches. In recent years, towns including Plymouth, Hull and Manchester-By-The-Sea have further restricted or banned nonresident parking near their shores.

Shelley says the state should make public beach access a requirement for communities seeking state money to make their beaches more resistant to climate change.

“It’s an ironic circumstance of people wanting state money, but not wanting taxpayers to actually come and be able to benefit from their investment,” Shelley said. “If you're coming to the public well, to ask for money for your beach, then I think a reasonable quid pro quo for that ought to be: Enhance public access.”

Rep. Fernandes agrees, saying beach towns that aren’t letting all members of the public have access to their beaches should not receive any state funds for those recreation areas.

“We should not be spending a single dollar of taxpayer money on refurbishing beaches, on hardening surfaces, on doing anything coastal, unless the public has full access to those areas,” Fernandes said.

The Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs claims it is already evaluating grant applications based partly on enhancing public access, but state spending data show several towns receiving funds for coastal resilience despite limiting beach access to only residents or vacationers renting in their town:

A lighted highway sign warns drivers "resident parking only" with a road and a shoreline in the background.
A highway sign on the access road into Nahant makes it clear that vistors will not be allowed to park to get to the beach.
Chris Burrell GBH News

  • Nahant’s Short and Canoe beaches received $220,000 in state grants for renourishment in 2018. Last summer, a big sign at the sole entrance into Nahant issues a sharp warned to outsiders in lit-up orange letters: "RESIDENT PARKING ONLY BEYOND THIS POINT. VIOLATORS WILL BE TOWED!!”
  • Since 2014, taxpayers have funded more than $300,000 for improvements at Squibnocket Beach in Chilmark on Martha’s Vineyard. The town has a firm residents-only policy on all its town-owned beaches.
  • The same goes for Westport, which won a $120,000 state grant for dune restoration in 2014, but bans outsiders from parking near its beaches.

For people who don’t live in coastal towns or pay the high cost of summer vacation rentals, these policies generally mean the beaches are off limits.

Given the disparate access, some minorities and lower-income residents in the state might not even bother trying to get to ocean beaches, according to a 2012 survey cited in the Massachusetts Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan.

“Higher income households and white, non-Hispanic households use the coast more frequently,” the report said.

And on beaches that are easily accessible for diverse, urban communities, pollution sometimes creates another barrier. Public beaches in Dorchester, Quincy and Lynn were each closed more than a dozen days in 2020.

King’s Beach, which straddles Lynn and Swampscott, is a gorgeous crescent of beach but frequently fails bacteria testing because of long-standing sewer pipe problems that allow pungent sewage to discharge from stormwater drains onto the beach after heavy storms.

Last August, Guy Zaccardi was out for a walk overlooking King’s Beach, where red warning flags flapped in the wind.

“We don't have a yard. This was our yard and nowadays we can't even come down — the trash, the pollution, not being able to go into the water. It's all been very detrimental,” said Zaccardi, who lives in Swampscott just a couple blocks from the beach.

Just south in Revere, Jacqueline Chavez said her city’s well-known public beach suffers from a stigma of being too dirty for swimming.

“I talked to people: ‘Why don't you go in the water?’” said Chavez, who moved to Massachusetts from Miami. “And there’s this negative connotation [that] you don't swim in Revere. And it's like, ‘Oh, I swam in Revere and there was a syringe in the water and there’s broken glass.’”

Chavez is calling for improvements on Revere Beach, including better language access on public signage for people with limited English language abilities.

Beach LynnNah crowd 082621.JPG
Hundreds of people line the shore and swim in the water at Lynn-Nahant Beach on Aug. 26, 2021.
Chris Burrell GBH News

For non-residents who do try to make a day at the shore, just getting on a beach often requires scrambling for a parking space at one of the select few public ocean beaches under state, federal or nonprofit ownership.

The state-owned Lynn-Nahant Reservation beach, which is 1.5 miles long, has a parking lot with 950 spaces — and every one of those spots is in high demand come summertime.

“On a hot day, the lot fills up by 10 a.m.” said a worker collecting $10 entrance fees or checking for annual passes last August.

That forces people like Hilary Dawson and her husband, Carlos Funes, from Arlington, to race to beat the crowds.

“You usually have to kind of leave at the crack of dawn. Would you say, Carlos, like the latest you can leave is probably by seven?” Dawson, a schoolteacher, said to her husband, who is a chef. They made it to the Lynn-Nahant beach with their 6-year-old daughter on a Wednesday in late August.

But why this beach?

“We used to go to Gloucester,” said Dawson. “Wingarsheek, Good Harbor and all that. But that's gotten really expensive, like 25, 30 bucks to park.”

GBH News interns Emma Foehringer Merchant and Hannah Green contributed reporting to this story.

Do you have a personal story about confronting barriers at the beach? We'd love to hear from you. Email us at investigations@wgbh.org.

This story was updated to correct the location of Sunrise Beach in Marshfield.