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Urban beach maintenance at an ebb

IT MAY SEEM like monumental bad timing for the Metropolitan Beaches Commission to be raising concerns about the state’s coastal parks in February, when summer seems about as far away as the moon. But the timing is just right, because the Legislature is preparing its budgets for the fiscal year that begins July 1. By then, it will be clear whether hard-won gains in conditions at the state’s 14 public beaches were protected — or allowed to erode like a fragile dune in a winter storm.

An estimated one million residents live within a half-hour of the metropolitan beaches, whose fortunes have shifted over the years with the rise and fall of state revenues and official attention. From Nahant to Hull, each one of the reservations managed by the state Department of Conservation and Recreation offers its own particular delights. Every beach has its local champions, most are served by public transportation, and every one is free.


Until the Legislature created the commission — essentially a well-supported public review board — in 2006, the beaches had become pits of neglect, with haphazard maintenance, erratic staffing, and unreliable reports on water quality and safety. But their rise from the depths is an inspiring story of citizen action, and of the positive role an engaged government can play in people’s everyday lives.

Galvanized by hope that the state was ready to be a full partner, volunteer groups monitored conditions and identified specific areas for improvement, from dog waste to algae to broken water fountains. The Globe published several editorials promoting investments in the parks. The indefatigable Bruce Berman of Save the Harbor/Save the Bay, which now manages the commission’s work, organized mass swims to raise funds and awareness. By August of 2007, the issue had been pushed to the top of the DCR agenda, and Governor Deval Patrick announced a $2 million budget supplement to buy sorely needed maintenance equipment and hire full-time beach managers.


According to testimony taken by the commission at 10 community meetings since last summer, park conditions improved dramatically — at first. New bathhouses were built, fences were repaired or replaced, trees were planted, trash got picked up on a regular schedule. But state support has been slipping since the financial collapse of 2008, and is now below the level of 2006, according to the commission. Vacant positions are not being filled; maintenance is deferred. “Government investments really do improve people’s ability to enjoy our resources,” said state Senator Tom McGee of Lynn, who chairs the commission. “We can’t let that slip back to being where it was in the past.”

Beach lovers are disappointed that Patrick did not request additional funding for DCR in his $36 billion annual budget proposal last month. Now they are pinning their hopes on legislative leaders — one of whom, House Speaker Robert DeLeo, is an influential constituent of the briny town of Winthrop. Indeed, Winthrop beach is due for “re-nourishing” this spring with 350,000 cubic yards of sand. The $20 million project, nearly complete, also includes sea wall restoration to reduce flooding, landscaping, lighting, and repairs to the shore road. To spend that money on capital improvements and then not maintain the property seems shortsighted in the extreme.

Like most cash-strapped agencies, DCR is torn in dividing resources between the mostly urban beaches and its many campgrounds, trails, and ponds in other parts of Massachusetts. So the beaches commission is proposing a $7 to $10 million increase in the entire DCR budget, enough to hire 60 full-time staffers across the state. It’s a savvy strategy, since many voters outside Route 128 tend to resent Boston for sucking up more than its perceived fair share of resources.


Even with facilities in good repair, the beaches won’t approach their potential without programming. The commission has big dreams for kayak rentals, concession stands, concerts, family movie nights, even possible ferry service. Modest public funding would help jump-start that, too. “The beaches are some of the state’s most popular parks,” said Berman, “used by thousands who don’t have other options.” They may not ever make the travel guides listing the world’s best beaches, as in Tahiti or even Cape Cod, but they are the people’s beaches, and they all deserve re-nourishing.

Renée Loth's column appears regularly in the Globe.