Updated July 25 at 12:05 p.m.

Summer traffic in Gloucester has become so extreme in recent years that residents can't always get out of their driveways or run weekend errands in town.

Overwhelmed with the onslaught of traffic to its well-known public beaches, the city started an online reservation system this season specifically for nonresidents to secure parking spaces. City leaders hope that tool will mitigate frustration for both residents and visiting beachgoers.

Other coastal towns are taking similar approaches to restrict the number of out-of-towners who can park near their shores. This dynamic of tightening access and rising demand in Massachusetts is stoking increasing tensions at the shoreline between would-be beachgoers and the gatekeepers controlling who gets on the beach and who doesn’t. It’s made worse by the fact that many beaches are shrinking due to the effects of climate change, eroding the already small amount of public coastline.

“As more people want to use the coast and as private property owners want to maybe better protect their own property, we're seeing increasing conflicts,” said John Duff, a professor of environmental law and policy at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. “And that's not just in Massachusetts, that's pretty much any coastal state.”

Over 12 months of reporting, GBH News has ventured onto 20 beaches from the Cape and Islands to Salisbury, talked with more than 50 people, and analyzed beach policies and state spending in dozens of coastal communities. This investigation found that while the state invests millions of taxpayer dollars into town-owned beaches, many of these beaches are kept entirely or mostly off-limits to the general public through a system of exclusionary local parking ordinances. And despite state surveys of residents in 2012 and 2017 showing a high demand for more beaches, Massachusetts has not acquired any new recreational beach properties since the late 1980s.

More demand, more conflicts

For years, visitors hoping to nab a parking space at Good Harbor or Wingarsheek beaches in Gloucester could wait for hours in a line of vehicles only to be turned away at the lot by a sign stating “No more nonresidents."

“We love sharing what we have with the general public," said City Council President Valerie Gilman, "but during [the COVID-19 pandemic] in particular, we had huge crowds coming in."

In other coastal towns, locals' demand for beach access is squeezing out nonresidents.

The town of Scituate sold 7,812 annual beach stickers last year, with just 366 — under 5% — going to out-of-towners.

In neighboring Marshfield, beach administrator Cindy Castro said the parking lot for the half-mile-long Rexhame Beach holds about 290 cars. Asked about access for nonresidents, she said, “I'd be happy to have them, but we just don't have the parking.”

Castro said the number of residents buying beach stickers has increased every year. Newly built homes, including large apartment buildings, are adding to that demand.

“There’s more year-round residents coming here," she said. "We've had an explosion in housing."

Nantucket beach homes
Boats and waterfront houses are seen on Nantucket Island, Mass.
OlegAlbinsky Getty Images/iStockphoto

Andrew Kahrl, a historian at the University of Virginia who wrote a book about the history of restrictive beaches in Connecticut, said exclusionary practices often follow a rise in real estate values.

“Increasingly many of these coastal communities are reflecting the interest of wealthy homeowners,” said Kahrl. “As housing markets and as communities become more exclusive, public access decreases, if not completely exhausted

While median house sales in Massachusetts more than tripled in the last 30 years, many coastal communities have seen their real estate values grow at far higher rates — in some cases by a factor of five, according to data from the Warren Group, a Boston firm tracking real estate data.

Rising real estate values on the coast and a growing demand for coastal access are fueling conflict.

On Martha’s Vineyard, where wealthy beachfront owners hire guards to shoo away trespassers, such conflicts are commonplace.

Last year on 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 on a private beach with “No Trespassing” signs posted from the dune to near the waterline.

In Massachusetts, state law allows ownership of beaches to extend to the low tide line, but Tolsdorf, who is 80, said she was below that line and within just a few feet of the water when the beach owner approached her and told her to leave.

An older woman in shorts and sandals stands on a sandy beach next to a "no trespassing" sign.
Boots Tolsdorf, a summer resident of Nantucket, holds scallop shells next to a private beach.
Chris Burrell GBH News

“I'm sure I had some shaking in my knees about it. But I'm a pretty strong woman, not physically, but I thought I had a right to be there,” she said. “I told him that I was on the other side of this line and it really wasn't private property. It was a public beach.”

Tolsdorf said the beachfront owner pushed her twice. Nantucket police charged the man with assaulting a person over the age of 60, and the case is ongoing in the island's district court.

The Massachusetts Land Court is weighing another conflict over beach access: A half-dozen Rockport residents upset about noisy scuba divers on Back Beach have sued the town, claiming the beach is actually private.

“We don't want to stop people from using the beach. We just want a little peace and quiet,” said one of the plaintiffs, Stephanie Rauseo, 81. “It's gotten to the point where on a Sunday or Saturday morning, we've been woken up at 6:00 with over a hundred scuba divers clanging tanks right outside ten feet from my bedroom window.”

Kayakers and even birdwatchers trying to access the shoreline told GBH News they’ve been chased away by private beach owners.

Kent Harrop, a retired minister who lives in Beverly, was kayaking last year in his hometown when he decided to paddle to shore to stretch his legs. Within five minutes, he said a beach owner told him to get off.

“I told them that I had a cramped leg, and I would be gone in about 10 minutes,” said Harrop. “I was told I needed to leave immediately or they'd call the police.”

Harrop moved to Massachusetts after spending 20 years living in Oregon, where all beaches are public.

Shrinking beaches

In a state where just 12% of beaches are open to all members of the public, rising sea levels and increasingly powerful storms add to the problem, whittling away beach access in dozens of beloved coastal sites.

Those effects of climate change have eaten swaths of Crane Beach in Ipswich, a popular 4-mile-long beach about 30 miles north of Boston.

“The beaches, they’re shrinking,” said Tom O’Shea, a natural resources expert at The Trustees of Reservations, a conservation nonprofit that owns Crane Beach.

As O'Shea stood near an eroding dune where tangles of grass roots poked out from a cliff, he said the increasing frequency of large storms has had a major impact.

“We've lost the equivalent of over 84 football fields of beach just in the last 30 to 50 years,” he said.

"We've lost the equivalent of over 84 football fields of beach just in the last 30 to 50 years."
Tom O’Shea, natural resources expert at The Trustees of Reservation

Further south, surging seas forced Orleans earlier this year to abandon its parking lot at Nauset Beach and build a new one on higher ground.

And on the most popular public beach on Martha’s Vineyard, the state-owned South Beach in Edgartown, erosion is quickly becoming the biggest barrier to access. The sands have narrowed so dramatically that its left fork is mostly submerged at high tide.

John Marabello and his wife sat on South Beach recently, reflecting on how quickly the landscape had changed. He said in the 30 years that they have rented property on the island, they had never seen the water as high as it was during their latest visit.

"We came on Wednesday, about 9:30 in the morning, [and] there was literally no beach," he said.

A woman and man, both wearing swimsuits, sit on canvas lounge chairs on a sandy beach. Groups of other people are seen behind them.
John Marabello and his wife sit on South Beach in Edgartown, Mass., on July 15, 2022.
Jenifer McKim GBH News

Edgartown’s conservation agent Jane Varkonda said storms and rising sea levels have taken away 70 feet of beach in the last three years.

"On a good high tide, there probably is not a beach to sit on,” she said. “So we've had to scramble. We've had to figure out, you know, where do we put our lifeguard stands? How do we get staff onto the beach?”

South Beach is one of the few public beaches on the island. It’s also one of the last recreational beaches acquired by the state, taken by eminent domain in the 1980s for just less than $4.5 million.

The state is now spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to protect that investment: renourishing the beach, restoring dunes and relocating the bathhouse.

But even as Edgartown’s parks department — which manages the beach for the Massachsuetts Department of Conservation and Recreation — seeks another $726,495 in state funds for this now-vulnerable public beach, there are no guarantees, said Varkonda.

“We’re caught off guard almost every time we have a storm come in,” she said. “The beach is extremely low and extremely narrow. And we're really worried about what’s going to happen.”

GBH Deputy Investigative Editor Jenifer McKim and 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.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated where Nauset Beach is.