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The Boston Globe

Opinion

Mike ross

The path of most resistance

In Harwich, a question of access threatens beach rights for all

Source: Google maps. James Abundis/globe staff

Bayview Beach won’t show up on most maps. For over 100 years, it has sat just west of Wychmere Harbor in Harwich, tucked between Bank Street and Merkel beaches. Generations of vacationers — from the Van Burens (as in relatives to the eighth president) to the O’Neills (as in Tip, the speaker of the house) — have sprawled along it for summers on end.

And despite the fact that a public path has led residents to its sands for decades, a group of homeowners are now trying to prevent access.

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This isn’t just some fight between the rich and the very rich. For one thing, Harwich ain’t Nantucket. It’s still a place where families across Massachusetts take that one-week vacation that they’ve been saving up for the entire year. But for those who will be returning this summer, it may not be the welcome place they remember.

Without getting into complex legal areas of coastal land use and colonial ordinances that glaze the eyes, here’s the gist of the fight: Massachusetts is among the few jurisdictions that define tidelands differently from virtually everywhere else in the free world. While most consider the public part of a beach to be from the high tide mark toward the sea, here, the line was moved farther seaward to the mean low tide mark. This was done in order to get the upland property owners of the time to build ports to engage in commerce.

What this means for you and me is less access to beaches.

These laws aren’t changing anytime soon, but within the various doctrines there remains some wiggle room, and lovers of Bayview Beach have some legal room to build a case. For one thing, there’s the public path directly to the beach. There’s also the history of nearby residents and visitors using Bayview for generations. And then there’s the jetty.

Shaped somewhat like a reclined seat, the jetty sits at the mouth of Wychmere Harbor, and was built by the state during the turn of the 20th century. The jetty allows for boats to navigate to and from the harbor. Without it, the mouth of the harbor would fill with sand, and it would revert back to the pond it once was. The jetty also creates something of a land windfall for the residents who live just to the west of it — along Bayview Beach. For those residents, the jetty’s placement has created hundreds of feet of new beachfront as a result of the collecting sand. The technical term for this land bonanza is “accretion,” but I just call it good fortune.

Instead of thanking their lucky stars that this public works project — paid for by public funds — has added precious waterfront land to their property, a collection of the owners are seeking to reserve the beach solely for their own use. One owner went so far as to erect mocked-up signs along the pathway declaring the beach private. They were ordered down by the town.

Another group of residents, called the Friends of Harwich Beaches, is commited to keeping Bayview open as it has been for over 100 years. They’ve hired a lawyer to plead their case. They’ve also sought the help of Attorney General Martha Coakley.

She should provide it. Their request is reasonable. They are not trying to turn the area into a tourist trap. They’re not looking to add snack bars, restrooms, parking, or waterslides. They merely want the exact same access they’ve had all along.

This isn’t a matter of concern only to a handful of Cape Cod vacationers. Public access to the ocean is a matter of ongoing concern throughout the Commonwealth, notwithstanding its antiquated laws. Consider the Boston HarborWalk, a coastal pathway that traces the edges of the Boston Harbor. From Chelsea Creek to the Neponset River, it enables the public to walk along the water’s edge. It wasn’t always that way. It took a fight by the mayor and community activists to make the harbor the public resource it should be. Along the way, some property owners tried to block access — but, eventually, the public won.

The public can win in Harwich, too.

Mike Ross is a Boston city councilor.
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