Beach Access Controversy | Who Owns the Beach?
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.
In New England, ongoing battles over who gets to use the beach have divided communities, ended friendships, even fractured families.
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.
Please Note: This information was accurate at the time of publication. When planning a trip, please confirm details by directly contacting any company or establishment you intend to visit.