Beach Access Controversy | Who Owns the Beach?
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.”
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.