ROCKPORT — For as long as anyone can remember, Back Beach, in the heart of this picturesque coastal village, has been known for its Fourth of July bonfire, Sunday night concerts at the bandstand beside the American Legion Post, and the crowds of scuba divers who flock to the public shore for its rocky terrain and, more importantly, metered parking spots.
Now all of that is in jeopardy from a sweeping legal challenge that has derisively been described as “very Rockport,” but has elements of situations happening all over the coast of Massachusetts. In a state that is nearly alone in allowing private ownership of land to the low tide line, public access to the coastline is a story of continual lawsuits and continual loss, and even public beaches are often restricted to those with resident parking stickers.
What’s happening at Back Beach, though, is extraordinary even by Massachusetts standards. That’s because a small group of residents who live along this public beach in the heart of the touristy downtown are now claiming that they own it. All of it — the public beach, the public street, and the land that holds the Legion hall and the bandstand.
The group, which calls itself the Back Beach Neighbors Committee and lists just six members, has been at war with the scuba divers for the last several years, insisting they are loud and out of control, blocking the street and residents’ driveways, clanging tanks together at all hours, and stripping off their wetsuits for all to see.
The neighbors sued the town over the issue, and mostly lost (only two of the nine original claims are still pending). They also seem to have lost — decisively — in the court of public opinion. All over Rockport, especially in the Back Beach neighborhood, there are red lawn signs proclaiming: “All are welcome, including divers.”
Undeterred, the group’s attorney, Michael Walsh, has crafted a more radical argument, cobbling together deeds dating to the Colonial era to claim that the beach is private property. Additionally, he argues that the surrounding land should revert to private property because it was given to the town under stipulations that have not been followed, according to the complaint filed in Land Court.
In the 1820s, a group of property owners along Beach Street gave the town a chunk of land to construct a school. Which it did. But in 1920 the school moved to consolidate with another, and in 1930 the building became an American Legion Post. Because it is no longer a school, the suit argues, the land should revert to the current property owners.
A similar argument applies to Beach Street itself. In the early 20th century, a group of property owners donated land to widen and improve the street, but it didn’t happen because the state soon began constructing Route 127, just behind the Back Beach neighborhood. Because the conditions were not followed, the land should revert to private ownership, the lawsuit states.
Since it was filed in June, the Land Court claim has been the talk of the town, with everyone buzzing about the legal strategy and potential endgame. Do these people really want to own the beach and kick everyone out? Or is this just a ploy for leverage in their continued attempt to restrict scuba access?
Stephanie Rauseo, whose Beach Street house has been in her family as a second home since the 1960s, is one of the six listed members of the Back Beach Neighbors Committee. In an interview, she suggested the lawsuit was more negotiating tactic than hostile takeover.
“We don’t want to own the beach so we can exclude people,” said Rauseo, 80. “We just want a better situation as far as the town respecting us, rather than harassing us.”
She pointed to a recent concert at the bandstand, where the band changed the lyrics to “This Land Is Your Land” to include Back Beach.
“We don’t want a private beach. We’re not even against scuba divers. We just want some control. It’s gotten out of hand in recent years. There are massive crowds blocking the street so nobody can get through. There are scuba divers yelling outside our doors at 6 a.m. There are people parked everywhere loading and unloading tanks, blocking the street. I’ve seen an ambulance unable to get through. That’s all we’re trying to control.”
But what of the other Rockport traditions that have gotten roped into this diving dispute? The Fourth of July bonfire that started in 1853 and the American Legion Post and the bandstand? Walsh, the attorney, said there are “mixed opinions” within the group he represents, and nothing has been decided on their fate should the group win. Most likely, he said, the group would allow them to continue but with the town having to license the sites from the owners, with stipulations.
“We’re reasserting traditional property rights to be able to reassert some reasonable conditions on their use,” he said.
The town has fought every claim in court but has remained quiet publicly on the feud. Multiple calls to town administrator Mitchell Vieira went unreturned.
Paul Murphy, a selectman, declined to comment on the pending legislation but echoed the widespread local sentiment that “everyone is welcome in Rockport, including divers, who have been coming to Rockport since day one.” Murphy said that residents who have any issues with divers should start by calling police, but he said he is not aware of any such calls on the police log.
But the Rockport community has been far from quiet on the issue, and it’s hard to find any who support the Back Beach Neighbors committee. At best, you get an eyeroll and complaints of deep-pocketed summer people again trying to tell locals what they can and can’t do with their town. But for some, including many direct neighbors of those involved in the suit, it’s personal.
Among the most vocal have been Stewart and Beth Renner, who live just off the beach on Granite Street. Beth Renner is the person who made the red “All are Welcome” signs seen all over Rockport, and she said the suit is just the latest volley by people who have, since they arrived, tried to change everything that made Back Beach special.
“They’ve complained about the Fourth of July bonfire. They’ve complained about the music at the bandstand. And now they’re complaining about the scuba divers, saying they get naked in the street,” Renner said. “I’ve been looking at them through binoculars for 24 years and I’ve never seen anyone naked.”
Mike Merriman, an instructor at Mass Diving who has been teaching classes at Back Beach for many years, said divers face a constant battle trying to get access to the ocean, mostly because parking is so difficult. What has always made Back Beach so great is that it has public spaces. Now his concern is that “deep pockets that can afford to file lawsuit after lawsuit” are going to drive the divers away.
“They’re asking for everything in the hopes that it will get them something, and that something is the divers,” he said.