Maine's solution to beach barriers? Buying land for public use
Ciona Ulbrich stood on a scenic beach in the small, coastal town of Brooksville, Maine, feeling grateful to be able to lawfully enjoy the warm sun and ocean breeze.
The nonprofit Ulbrich works for, the Maine Coast Heritage Trust, purchased Bakeman Beach a few years ago and gave it to the town — with the stipulation that it remain open to all members of the public.
“Someone could have bought this off, put up a fence and closed it off, which is upsetting, but it's very real,” she said. “This coastal land is getting ever more valuable.”
Both Maine and Massachusetts live under similar Colonial-era laws allowing private ownership of beachfront property to extend all the way down to the low-tide line, severely limiting public access to the intertidal area of the coastline. But while Massachusetts has not acquired any new coastal beaches since 1990, state agencies and land trusts in Maine have pushed back against privatization, acquiring more than a dozen beaches over the last four years alone and mandating they be open to all members of the public. Maine has also helped some of its coastal communities research historic deeds and identify public access rights to the coastline. In the 1990s, Massachusetts launched a similar program but soon abandoned it.
“Not all of us are going to be able to afford second homes. Not all of us have that summer camp that we traditionally go to,” said Sarah Demers, director of the Land for Maine’s Future, a state agency that funds land conservation. “But all of us deserve the opportunity to enjoy Maine's great outdoors.”
An ongoing GBH News investigation found limited opportunities for most residents and visitors to enjoy Massachusetts’ coastline. Rising home prices, parking restrictions, an undercurrent of racism and shrinking coastline due to climate change have all created barriers. Less than 12% of Massachusetts’ roughly 1,400-mile-long shoreline is open to all members of the public. Some public beaches charge as much as $40 to visit, while many municipally owned beaches ban or restrict parking access for out-of-towners, and the rest are privately owned to the low tide line.
Government agencies in Maine have not calculated the exact percentage of its 3,500-mile-long coastline that is open to the public, but officials and conservationists say their coastline also faces the threat of increasing privatization, and they're taking action. Maine's state government and nonprofit land trusts have bought and conserved hundreds of miles of coastline over the last two decades. Ulbrich's nonprofit alone has acquired 258 miles along the shore for public use in that time, including Bakeman Beach.
For decades, the Brooksville beach was privately owned but open to the public — a practice that relied on the generosity of the owner. When the owner put the property on the market, it prompted concern that the public would lose that access.
“It's understandable that people feel like they want to privatize it. But it's unfortunate,” said Ulrich, a senior project manager at the land trust. “And it's a real shift in how the communities have been able to work. Water access is so fundamental, and a lot of these towns have very few points of it. With all of the real estate market pressures now, they're really feeling that lack.”
The Maine Coast Heritage Trust negotiated a deal with the owner to separate the beach lot from a house and land across the road. Organizers raised $80,000 to purchase the beach in 2019, and gave it to the town under a permanent conservation restriction.
Just before Labor Day, beachgoers Windy Dayton and her husband Brent Was relaxed on Bakeman Beach with their two dogs.
“It’s made a huge difference in our family's lives to have access to this place,” said Dayton, sitting in a beach chair on the scenic roadside strand.
Dayton added that weeks earlier, while visiting relatives in Ipswich, Massachusetts, local beaches like Crane Beach were so crowded or restricted they didn’t even try to get there.
“It was hot as hell, and there was nowhere anybody could go to the beach,” she said. “The entire beautiful Cape Ann, and there was nowhere to go.”
The acquisition of Bakeman Beach didn’t use any public funds, but the state of Maine is dedicating money and time to conserve beaches, commercial waterfronts and other natural resources. The state-run Land for Maine’s Future now has $40 million to spend during the next four years on recreational and conservation properties statewide through a law signed by Gov. Janet Mills.
Demers said her agency tries to move fast on water-access applications from towns and land trusts — before private owners or developers can snap up the coastal land.
“Real estate prices in Maine have been absolutely crazy,” she said. “It’s why our water-access program accepts projects on a rolling basis. These properties go on the market and sell so quickly.”
Maine officials and environmentalists said the pandemic drove two trends impacting the coastline: an increase in out-of-state people buying coastal properties and a rising public demand for more access to the coastline.
The Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, and its predecessor agency, hasn’t pursued beach acquisitions in decades despite surveys of residents showing a high demand and at least one study documenting unequal access to the state’s coastline.
The simple reason is a lack of funding and support from state leadership, said Geordie Vining, the former director of coastal access planning for the state between 1994 and 2000.
“The imbalance of resources is very palpable. And it's always been that way,” said Vining, now a planner for the coastal city of Newburyport. “The state park agencies have gotten just a tiny sliver of public resources and public budgets. It's unclear to me why that is the case, given that these [coastal] facilities are so well used and well-loved.”
The annual budget for the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation has stayed level at about $5 million for each of the last 12 years.
But a new pledge from Governor-elect Maura Healey could change that approach and make Maine a model for Massachusetts expanding access to the ocean coastline.
"As Governor, Maura will preserve and expand access to our treasured beaches while working to protect our coast from the impacts of climate change and pollution," Karissa Hand, spokesperson for Gov-elect Healey, told GBH News in an emailed statement this week.
While Maine has taken steps to increase its coastal footprint for public access, friction points and barriers still exist. Beach towns in more densely populated southern Maine also restrict parking access for nonresidents.
And there’s increasing conflict around access to the Maine coastline, said Ben Ford, a Portland attorney.
Ford said that even though Maine law is supposed to allow unimpeded coastal access for activities related to fishing, dozens of his clients who earn a living from harvesting clams, seaweed and bloodworms have all been chased off beaches and mudflats by private beach owners.
“As Maine coastal property is gobbled up by people who really see it as a vacation destination, it puts a lot of pressure on the people who live and work on the coast,” he said. “That pressure has become more and more acute.”
Claire Malina, who works as a librarian in Blue Hill, Maine, said she has seen newly posted “private property” signs on a nearby beach that’s popular in the community.
The same fate could have come to Bakeman Beach, where Malina regularly swims and kayaks, had the land trust not stepped in.
“It feels really comforting to know that we'll continue to have access there. And it's one of the most pristine, beautiful beaches in this area,” she said. “If we no longer had access, it would feel devastating.”
This story originally appeared on GBH's website.