Beach Access Controversy | Who Owns the Beach?
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!”