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Beach Access Controversy | Who Owns the Beach?

In New England, ongoing battles over who gets to use the beach have divided communities, ended friendships, even fractured families.

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Editor’s Note: On February 4, 2014, The Maine Supreme Judicial Court overturned a ruling that granted the public access to Goose Rocks Beach in Kennebunkport, Maine.

THE INVASION

It was the kids who arrived first, all from Hartford, clad in T-shirts and bathing suits. They scampered up an aluminum ladder lodged against a rock pier and then tossed themselves onto the white sands of the Madison Beach Club in Madison, Connecticut. They were loud and happy, laughing and singing as they made their way to the sea. Next came the parents, toting baskets and paper bags stuffed with picnic fixings and towels. On this Sunday morning in late May 1975, these moms and a few fathers dipped their toes into the still-cool Long Island Sound water, then carved out their sunbathing spots. Two teenage boys rounded out the visitors, coming by water in an old rowboat they steered toward the beach. In all, the group’s arrival took just six minutes to complete, the uninvited mass moving with the kind of speed and precision that one reporter compared to “Vietnamese boarding the last plane for the States.”

For club members, who’d paid the $300-per-family annual fee for a little slice of this exclusive stretch of shorefront, the sudden wave of arrivals pushed them into action. They nervously picked up their belongings, rounded up their children, and headed back to the clubhouse, where they stood on the porch, in full earshot as the unwelcome group sang, “This beach is our beach, your beach is our beach” to the tune of “This Land Is Your Land.” Then they watched as a teenage girl dressed as Uncle Sam planted an American flag in the sand.

If this collection of kids and parents were strangers to club officials, the man at the center of the invasion most certainly was not. As communities up and down the Sound were gearing up for what would prove to be the hottest summer in nine years, Ned Coll was plotting another round of beach invasions. In a state where just 3 percent of its 253-mile coastline was open to all residents, Coll, who’d spent a decade fighting urban-poverty issues, had made public access to beaches a central cause.

“Russian trawlers get closer to the Connecticut beaches than inner-city kids [do],” said Coll, the charismatic 35-year-old founder of the Revitalization Corps, a private domestic Peace Corps based in Hartford.

Coll took particular delight in bringing his theatrical fight to the private beaches of Long Island Sound. At Fenwick Beach, summer home of the Hepburns, he and his group paraded around with signs that read Let’s Help Each Other in America and Patriotism Means Helping, Not Hoarding. One landing began with a parachutist; another featured a plane flying above, brandishing the message Free America’s Beaches. Sometimes Coll himself arrived with kids and parents and invaded by land; other times he buzzed in by motorboat, proudly displaying the American flag.

The resistance he encountered wasn’t always passive. In 1973, he gained “legal” access to Madison’s beaches by renting out a collection of motel rooms for the summer, skirting the town’s residency requirements. The move incensed the town; one of his staffers was punched and cut with a shard of glass. Four years later, he embarked on a 12-day PR blitz by walking the entire Connecticut coastline. The trek earned him a black eye from one protective beach owner and a standoff with Greenwich officials, who tried to ban press coverage of the walk.

Still, he pushed. “[He] seemed like a young infantry lieutenant about to send his troops into a battle that was somehow going to be fun no matter who got hurt,” one reporter wrote.

Perhaps most irritating to the opposition was the fact that Coll knew the law. He knew that in Connecticut, private property ended at the high-tide line. That the land below that line–seawalls and piers and No Trespassing signs be damned–was open to anyone to use, whether you lived in a Greenwich mansion or low-income housing in Hartford.

When, on that May morning in 1975 in Madison, police confronted Coll and his group, he stood his ground. “We’re here to have a nice day at the beach,” he said to the officers. “Hope you have a nice day, too!” The police soon left, and the Hartford visitors splashed and swam until 3:00 in the afternoon.

But while events like this made headlines, the public access Coll wanted to secure below the high-tide mark, the area he called “Taxpayers Trail,” never came. Like so much of Long Island Sound, the sands in front of the Madison Beach Club remain walled off not only to the kinds of Hartford kids Coll bussed in, but to nearly anyone who doesn’t belong to the club; even Coll, who found religion in the 1990s, has shifted his focus.

In the ensuing years, however, as the price of waterfront property has soared and coastal tourism boomed, the issues around public access to the beach have only intensified. The story lines are familiar: rich versus poor; summer residents versus locals; private ownership versus public rights. In New England, which has some of the most limiting public-beach laws in the nation, those story lines and the battles that have arisen out of them have divided communities, ended friendships, even fractured families. They’re an ugly, jagged contrast to the serene landscapes that are at the center of these fights.

And nowhere are these issues playing out with more intensity than in the seaside community of Goose Rocks Beach in Kennebunkport, Maine.

NEIGHBOR AGAINST NEIGHBOR

Goose Rocks Beach stretches out before me. It’s a mid-July afternoon–blue sky overhead, temperatures well above 80–and I’m standing on the western edge of the shore. Nearby, the Batson River, a run of water that swirls through the neighboring Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, churns softly as it marches toward the sea. On one riverbank three college-age guys shed their shirts and kick off their sandals. They’ve brought a football, and after a few moments’ hesitation, all three wade into the water. The men spread out, throwing long, lazy passes to each other under the intense sun. Finally, one of them plunges under, emerging a few seconds later with a wide grin.

“Dude!” he announces to his buddies, “This is fresh!”

Others have maybe expressed it a little differently, but that kind of sentiment has driven generations of visitors to Goose Rocks ever since the area emerged in the late 1800s as a tourist destination. Its charm stems in part from its remoteness. Tucked quietly off Route 9, six miles north of the tourist pop that clogs the center of Kennebunkport, this tight community of some 300 homes has long enjoyed a certain independence from the rest of the town. There’s a fire station within its borders, a bustling community center, too, and Goose Rocks locals speak about the area as a separate, singular Maine community, attached yet apart.

The charm also rests with what Goose Rocks isn’t. It’s not downtown Kennebunkport, or Wells or York. And, as locals will remind you, it’s most definitely not Old Orchard Beach. Which is to say, it’s quiet. Even in summer. The general store, one of only two commercial entities near the beach, is open only during the summer, and opens full-time only in July and August. Tight business restrictions don’t allow even an ice-cream truck. And Kings Highway, the main road that runs behind a band of oceanfront homes, is a narrow two-lane street of slow-moving traffic and kids on bikes and scooters.

The real selling point, however, is the beach itself. At a length of more than two miles, Goose Rocks opens up even further at low tide. In spots the water rolls back some three-quarters of a mile, revealing a barrier reef that gives the area its name. And because it’s south-facing and because of those Goose Rocks, the ocean here is calmer and warmer than at most other Maine beaches.

“It’s a really nice place to raise kids,” says Maureen Somers, a third-generation Goose Rocks summer resident. “People have the same values, which I think is very hard to find in the world we’re living in. And it’s a safe place at night. The only thing you hear is the ocean and the laughter from people walking by. That’s an incredible thing.”

But there’s something else, too. In a state that boasts more than 3,500 miles of coastline but makes just 5 percent of it open to the public, Goose Rocks is remarkably available to anyone able to find a parking space and pay the $12 for an all-day permit. For years, in fact, Goose Rocks has enjoyed a somewhat-blurred division between public and private property. Unlike what exists a few miles south in Wells, the shoreline that accompanies the area’s 110 oceanfront homes has never been marked off by Private signs, much less fenced off. Walkers routinely make their way up and down the full length of the beach, and it’s not uncommon to find uninvited sunbathers or boats parked on the sands near those houses.

But if a group of property owners have their way, that would change. Driven by fears that the town wants to ramp up commercial development, invite in thousands of additional visitors to the beach, and strip them of the property rights to which they say their deeds entitle them, these 29 homeowners have pushed to secure control over the shoreline.

For many locals the move has been viewed as an assault on the community, an attempt to overturn a century of public use on a beach that by everyone’s account is never crowded. Early on, the town got behind the majority of its residents and asserted that the entire beach was public property. Failed mediation sessions gave way to failed attorney conversations, and then finally, last fall, a bruising three-week trial. In all, this fight has raged on for nearly six years and consumed almost $2 million in litigation costs. The path toward healing the community may be even steeper.

“These people have owned their places like 10 or 15 years and now they want to own the beach?” one exasperated local business owner told me. “How would they police the rest of it so people don’t walk on it?” There’s defiance in her voice. And then a smile: “I know I’m going to keep walking on it.”

LINE IN THE SAND

In a way, the battle over Goose Rocks began with Mic Harris and a game of Frisbee.

In a community where it’s not uncommon for families’ connections to the area to go back four or five generations, Harris is an outsider. Tall, with a rim of closely cropped graying hair and remnants of a Southern accent that betray his roots, Harris and his wife, Sharon Eon, a Mainer who summered here as a child, have called Goose Rocks their year-round home since 1992. Although not on the ocean, their house, a rebuilt four-bedroom place, sits on one of the area’s many back-lot roads, giving the couple about a three-minute walk to the water. With his 9-year-old golden retriever, Kaysea, Harris, who works from home in software sales, takes advantage of his proximity to the sea almost daily.

One steamy July day, not long after he’d moved to Goose Rocks, Harris was wrapping up the morning when his teenage stepson burst into the house and related how he and his girlfriend had been asked to move off the beach. The complaint, he said, had come from a woman on the beach behind a home owned by Barbara Rencurrel. Even though Rencurrel had a history of carefully guarding the sands between her home and the water, Harris was incensed. “Not on my watch,” he told his son, and he grabbed his towel and Frisbee.

“In New England there’s this idea that private property is sacred and it’s yours to do with you as you wish,” he told me. “I don’t disagree with that in its purest form, but when it becomes part of a larger entity, like a waterfall or a beach, you’re talking about something unique. This is an important thing to everyone. It should be available for all the public.”

But beach law can be a confounding thing. And as Ned Coll discovered, in New England, a region steeped deeply in the values around private property, it’s a particularly divisive issue. Even in the 1970s, as other states, such as Oregon, Hawaii, Texas, and Florida, opened up their coastlines to the public, New England budged very little.

Maine is especially conservative. Maine and Massachusetts are two of only four coastal states in the country that permit ownership down to the low-tide mark. They also share something else: a 1647 Colonial ordinance, crafted when the two were still joined together, which restricts use within the intertidal zone to three specific activities: “fishing, fowling, and navigation.” Even in the wake of a tourist boom that’s enveloped beach communities over the last half-century, Maine has strayed little from a strict interpretation of that wording. The effect of the law is a curious one, allowing strangers to, for example, carry fishing poles and shotguns onto private property, but not towels or sunscreen.

Harris was only vaguely familiar with Maine beach law as he marched to the sand on that July day. Motivated by a lifetime spent living in oceanside communities where public access is more accommodating, he stood directly in front of the Rencurrel home, playing a game of catch with himself, throwing his Frisbee into the wind so that it came sailing back to him.

Within minutes, he says, Rencurrel’s daughter, Leslie Josselyn-Rose, came down to the beach and asked him to move. The conversation was courteous, but the back-and-forth lasted a good 10 minutes before Harris finally headed home. (Josselyn-Rose says that the person who confronted Harris’s stepson was neither she nor her mother.) Over the next dozen years, more confrontations followed, all of them between Harris and Rencurrel. He’d come down on his lunch break and sit on a beach chair. Sometimes the two would exchange words; other times, when Harris was in the water, Rencurrel would leave him a highlighted copy of Maine beach law.

“Most people were very gracious when I asked them to leave,” says Rencurrel, a widow and former Kennebunkport selectman, whose family has owned property in Goose Rocks since the 1940s. “But Mic was the only one who caused any problems.”

Things finally came to a head on a late August afternoon in 2005 after Rencurrel called the police. When the two officers arrived, Harris, who was sitting with friends, stood up and calmly defended his position, telling the officers that he believed the beach should be open to the public. He phoned his wife. “There’s a chance I might be arrested,” he told her. Within minutes she was at her husband’s side with 15 friends for support.

It was hardly a protest, and Harris eventually went home, but it proved to be a touchstone for the community. For the town, the incident forced officials to re-evaluate their position on the beach; they finally concluded that a century of public use had granted it a prescriptive easement over all of it. For the oceanfront owners, the clash between Rencurrel and Harris, and the town’s subsequent unwillingness to defend Rencurrel’s property rights, galvanized them into action. They held regular meetings, elected a leadership committee, and hired Sidney “Pete” Thaxter, an experienced attorney out of Portland who has spent more than two decades arguing for and representing property owners in beach-law cases. After rounds of talks and stalled mediation sessions with the town, the property owners filed their lawsuit against Kennebunkport in late October 2009.

Harris wasn’t done, either. When he learned about the case, he took his protest in a different direction. In a community where summer rental income is vital, and access to the beach is vital to that income, Harris feared that the town might strike quickly and settle for a deal that would undermine the residents. He knocked on his neighbors’ doors and asked for financial help to launch a new entity called Save Our Beaches (SOB), which would inform people about the case and rally support for the town.

Within a month he had $5,000, and over the next few years the group rallied the community with bake sales and concerts, as well as sponsored lectures about beach rights. At the height of summer, in the yards of backlot properties, up to 500 signs supporting SOB sprouted up like grass. Then, in the spring of 2010, in the face of a still-sputtering economy, Kennebunkport voters backed a proposal to set aside $250,000 for the lawsuit. (Over the next two years, an additional $550,000 was also approved.)

“It’s like that movie, It’s a Wonderful Life,” Harris says. “It could have been Pottersville if the town had just rolled over. There are people on the other side I’ve been friends with, but I can’t fraternize with them anymore. It doesn’t seem right to be friends and act like nothing has happened. They’re not suing an anonymous community.”

Beach Access Controversy | Who Owns the Beach?

“It’s like It’s a Wonderful Life,” Mic Harris says. “It could have been Pottersville if the town had just rolled over.” Motivated by a lifetime of living on the ocean, Mic Harris launched Save Our Beaches in late 2009 to spread information about the lawsuit and rally support for the town.

Dana Smith

THE BEACHFRONT OWNER

Robert Almeder doesn’t pretend that he is. If it was Rencurrel who first helped corral oceanfront owners, it was Almeder who steered the group once the issues with the town had deepened. Tall, with thinning white hair, Almeder, a retired professor of philosophy, lives with his wife, Virginia, year-round on the western edge of Goose Rocks, a couple of hundred yards from where I first saw those college kids throwing a football.

The Almeders discovered the area in the late 1970s. They owned a summer place in Rye Beach, New Hampshire, and one day drove to Maine and stumbled upon Goose Rocks. They were drawn to its quiet pace and its lack of traffic–attributes that seemed to be missing from their New Hampshire place. That same day, they looked at a rundown beachfront home that had just come on the market. With their two young girls, the Almeders went for a swim. The beach was empty, birds were flying overhead, and by the time they were drying off, the couple had decided to buy the home.

“It was just so unmolested,” says Almeder, sitting at his kitchen table, which offers straight-on views of the beach. “The first time I came here it struck me as wonderful, and I still feel that way.”

As the years wore on, and grandchildren and retirement entered their lives, the couple renovated the home. They added bedrooms, large windows off the living room and kitchen, and a spacious upstairs study for Almeder. In 2006, they made Goose Rocks their full-time home.

For Almeder, the Goose Rocks case inspires long, meaty paragraphs about how Kennebunkport’s elected leaders have failed the community and what their real motives are. In his view, he sees a town leadership stocked with businesspeople who want to introduce the kind of Route 1 development that’s become commonplace in Wells and York.

“It’s legalization of theft,” he says. “I think it’s the biggest land grab in Maine. All these villages were pretty little towns, but everybody likes to go to the ocean for a few weeks in the summer. And typically the ones who stay there in the winter get elected to boards of selectmen, and most of them are living off tourists … What these towns do, and will continue to do if they can, is take the property’s use and control it for some merchants.”

Almeder was particularly fired up by recent developments. In late August the town reached an agreement with the 62 non-plaintiff oceanfront owners on a resolution that called for a 25-foot beach buffer in front of their homes. The effect was a sort of private/public zone. Anyone could access the beach in front of these houses, but if an owner wanted exclusive use of that 25-foot zone, he or she could have unwanted visitors removed. In addition, tighter restrictions on commercial activity were put in place, as was a commitment by the town not to increase public parking.

But the bigger hammer fell a month later, when Superior Court Judge G. Arthur Brennan issued his ruling in the Goose Rocks case. In it he overwhelmingly sided with the town and said that a prescriptive easement had been established, giving the public full use of the beach. While the plaintiffs quickly appealed the case to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, the decision meant that this small group of oceanfront owners now had even less control of the beach than their neighbors who’d signed the agreement with the town. Almeder, though, has no regrets, and the willingness of those around him to settle rather than fight for their property rights frustrates him.

“I think it has something to do with the cost,” he says, letting out a long breath. “And there was this [SOB] group harassing beachfront owners and making them feel like they were being hostile to their neighbors. People were getting angry at beachfront owners, and some of them just said, ‘I don’t want to deal with it.'”

About three-quarters of the way through our conversation, Almeder looks outside and then turns to me. “Let’s take a walk,” he says, slipping on some old blue sneakers. We step out onto his deck, and then down onto a path that cuts between patches of long strands of brown beach grass. Overhead a winter sun is sinking in the sky, and we head in its direction, walking toward the banks of the Batson River. When we reach the water’s edge, Almeder turns toward the sea.

“You can see why you just want to come out here in the morning,” he says, spreading his arms out, as though he’s embracing the landscape. The tide is moving out, opening up a wide swath of empty sand, which we have all to ourselves.

But this is not just about the beach. For Almeder, the property could be a parking lot or a retired landfill. As he sees it, the sand in front of his house is his, he owns it, and he doesn’t want to be told how it should be managed.

“We are happy to give permission to everybody to walk this beach,” he says. “But we also want to have the right to say, ‘Get off.’ And that’s the way it’s been for 100 years. I think we’ve been very good about sharing. But I don’t trust the government, and I don’t trust those who are willing to take your property for economic gain for others or themselves.”

As Almeder talks about the case, he becomes more animated, more upset over how things have played out. “What has happened is the town poisoned the well by setting up something like class warfare,” he says. “These people in the back lots talk about the rich people on the front. That we’re one-percenters. Maybe there’s a certain amount of envy there, I don’t know. I never thought about it that way. But I think it’s a shame that the town succeeded in pitting one part of the community against the other in order to take land that they had no right to.”

THE LOCAL

Bill Junker has never really seen the beach as any one person’s land. Few families have a connection to Goose Rocks like his. His mother’s grandparents first started vacationing here in 1908, back when Route 9 was just a dirt road and farmers drove horse-drawn carts to the still-undeveloped western end of the beach each spring to collect seaweed for fertilizer. It’s where his parents first met and fell in love, and as a kid Junker spent every one of his summers at Goose Rocks. In 1977, shortly after graduating from college, he became a year-round resident.

“My college roommates would always ask me, ‘Why are you going home for the summer?'” says Junker, who’s married with three grown children. He lets out a chuckle: “But then they’d come visit and see why.”

Junker, who’s 58 and packs a fit build with a full head of red hair, is the town’s Parks & Recreation program assistant; with his wife, Maria, he also runs a small real-estate and property management company from their home. Thanks to a real-estate boom that is unlikely to be repeated, theirs is a middle-class life rarely scratched out anymore in these seaside communities. Their home, which sits across the street from the beach, and which they bought in 1979 for $22,500, could probably fetch around a million bucks.

On a late July afternoon, I visited the Junkers at their home. Junker’s father, Bill Sr., and his mother, Joan, joined us. We sat around the dining-room table and through the front windows there was a clear view of the Almeder property, across the street. The two families are close; they get together every Christmas Eve, and when the Almeders decided to renovate their home, they hired Junker, who was working as a builder at the time. But the Goose Rocks case, which was headed to trial at the time I met with them, had strained things.

“We said we wouldn’t let it ruin our friendship, and it hasn’t,” Maria said. “But it’s changed it. We think they’ve created a mess where one didn’t exist. I remember having a conversation with Bob before the suit was filed. I said, ‘As your friend, I’m telling you, don’t do this. People are going to be mad. People are not going to like you.’ He basically told me I was wrong and that what he was doing was a great thing and that he was saving the beach.”

The Junkers are lucky. Their deed includes a right-of-way to the ocean across a strip of land abutting the Almeders’ property. But many others who don’t own a home on the water were worried about what the uncertainty of a possibly privatized beach would do to their summer experience and their property values. “Some have talked about selling, but realistically, who’s going to buy a place near the water if you can’t access the water?” Maria said.

Later that afternoon, I hopped into Junker’s truck for a drive. We crawled along Kings Highway, as Junker, who’s worked on a good many oceanfront homes, gave me an architectural tour of the area. The tide was moving out, and on the eastern end, as we snaked down Sand Point Road, a woman on the distant tidal flats was doing yoga.

As we drove, Junker pointed out the plaintiffs’ houses. Many of the owners were or had been his clients, people whose homes he and Maria had managed while the owners were away for the winter. Now, though, they were having second thoughts. “We may not work with them, just to make a statement,” he said. “If you’re willing to tear the community apart, we’re not willing to deal with you. Right now, besides being socially shunned, there haven’t been any consequences for their bad acts.”

There was also a portion of the old Goose Rocks that Junker couldn’t show me. That’s because in the last few decades many of the original Goose Rocks cottages, simple seasonal ranches, have been taken down and replaced with bigger, more elaborate homes. In other spots, empty lots that Junker used to play in now have houses.

Really, Junker’s tour could have been a tour of any pretty place along the coast. With new money and higher property values come new people, new expectations, and new relationships with the community. Maybe the rise in real-estate prices has brought greater personal net worth, but it’s certainly changed the character of the place. Perhaps that’s part of what this story is about. Perhaps all those grains of sand become more precious when your property-tax bill climbs past $12,000. It seems understandable that the more valuable something becomes, the more tightly someone is likely to hold on to it.

“We just want to retain control,” the oceanfront owners’ attorney, Pete Thaxter, told me. “Look, if you live in the back community and you can’t find a friend, or don’t have a few friends with some place on the beach, then you don’t know the beach. It’s just a matter of saying, ‘Can I go sit in front of your house, Charlie?’ And if Charlie says no, go over to Susie. Of course, most people will say yes.”

Beach Access Controversy | Who Owns the Beach?

“Some have talked about selling,” Maria Junker says. “but who’s going to buy if you can’t access the beach?” While Bill and Maria Junker’s back-lot home includes a right of way to the ocean, other property owners aren’t as fortunate. Maybe the rise in real-estate values has brought greater personal net worth, but it has also changed the character of beachfront communities like Goose Rocks.

Dana Smith

A GRANDFATHER’S LEGACY

Carol Sherman can appreciate the private-property argument. Like Barbara Rencurrel, her family has owned a home in Goose Rocks since the 1940s, and, like Rencurrel, the 70-year-old Sherman has been coming to the beach since she was a little girl.

“When my grandfather bought his house, we were all taught that we owned down to the low tide,” says Sherman, a no-nonsense New Englander who grew up in Belmont, Massachusetts. “This is your property. This is your God-given right. And this is how it was from generation to generation.”

The beachfront home her grandfather bought is still in her family. But 12 years ago, Carol and her husband, Bob, who split the bulk of their working years between Texas and California, bought a Goose Rocks home of their own. Last year, the couple retired there. It’s a spacious place, with three bedrooms, big enough to welcome their twin boys and their families, which they do often.

On the day I visited them in mid-January, the Shermans were gearing up for a month’s escape to Florida. “Let’s sit where we can see the beach,” said Bob, greeting me at the door. He led me to a small back room that was drenched in light. Just beyond us, the brown spears of the dormant beach grass poked up through a coat of snow, while the sands of Goose Rocks stretched out beyond it. The scene looked like a painting.

Carol Sherman had been one of the original plaintiffs in the case; she was nervous about what additional tourist growth could mean to the Goose Rocks she’d always known. But as positions hardened on both sides, and a court battle looked imminent, she started having second thoughts.

Then, in June 2011, a little less than two years into the litigation, Sherman was sitting on her front step when an old friend, a back-lot owner named Stuart Flavin, pedaled up to her on his bike. The two went back years–Flavin had been the beach’s lifeguard when Sherman was a girl–and she was nervous about what the case had done to their friendship.

“When I saw him, I just started to cry,” she says. “Then I said, ‘Do you still love me?'” He said, ‘Yeah, but what the hell are you doing?’ And then we went inside and just started talking, and it turned out we had so much more in common than what we disagreed with.”

From that one conversation came others, which incorporated other beachfront and back-lot owners. They formed a committee–Bob Sherman was a member–and started working on a document that eventually became the beach-use agreement signed by the town and a majority of Goose Rocks residents. It also pushed Carol Sherman to drop out of the case, a hard decision that put her at odds with other family members, who continued on with the litigation. “It wasn’t easy when I told my family,” she says. “We’ve found that the best way to talk about it is not to talk about it.”

Beach Access Controversy | Who Owns the Beach?

“[Others] need to come here and love it like we do,” Carol Sherman says. Family legacies and New England’s heightened sense of the sacredness of private property have helped drive the Goose Rocks case. For Carol Sherman, fear of increased tourism gave way to what she calls “practical wisdom” about the management of the beach.

Dana Smith

And then there were the words of her grandfather. In signing on to the agreement, in making the decision not to fight for every grain of sand that the law said she was entitled to, was she going against what he’d told her? Sherman spent a lot of time tossing around that question, poring over what it meant for her and her family. But legacies come in different forms, and as Sherman reflected on the beach’s importance in her life, she realized that she just might be endangering its future by walling it off from others.

“Okay, it may be your property, but you need to have what I call ‘practical wisdom’ about the whole thing,” she says. “So let it be your property, but let people have respectful use of this great gift we’ve been given. Us old folks, we’ve cared for the piping plovers that nest here, we’ve cared for the beach, but we’re not going to be around forever. If somebody doesn’t love the beach like we do, they’ll kill the sea life and things will get polluted. They need to come here; they need to learn about it and love it like we do.”

As I pulled away from her house, I thought about what Sherman had said. I thought about that beautiful beach in front of her place, too. Maybe it was just 25 feet of sand she was ceding to the town, but if put in her shoes, could I have done the same thing? Would I have wanted to? As I slowly made my way down Kings Highway, catching occasional glimpses of the water and the empty shoreline, I imagined it in summer, the scene suddenly cluttered with strangers and their radios and all their beach stuff. Would I have given this up for the chance of that? Would you?

The answers aren’t so easy.

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