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