USA - America Has a Private-Beach Problem
A shockingly small portion of the shoreline is truly available to the public.
Accessing the least-crowded section of New York’s Lido Beach requires either money or insider knowledge. Anyone staying at one of the hotels on the beach can walk through the lobby, and those living in the adjoining town can waltz in through a separate gate using a residents-only electronic access code. Everyone else, though, has to come in through a public entrance half a mile away and walk over the sand.
In theory, some portion of every beach in the coastal United States is reserved for collective use—even those that border private property. But exactly how big that portion is varies widely, and in practice, much of the shore is impenetrable. Simply figuring out which patches of sand you’re allowed to lie on requires navigating antiquated laws and modern restrictions that vary by state—not to mention vigilante efforts from landowners intended to keep people out. Lido Beach is a classic (and absurd) example: Like the rest of the New York coast, it’s technically open to everyone up to the high-tide line, but actually reaching that public strip is difficult without trespassing on private land. A trip to the ocean has never been more confusing.
Visiting a completely public spot, such as Myrtle Beach in South Carolina or Santa Monica Beach in L.A., might seem like the most drama-free way to get time in the waves. But “in some states, you don’t really have that option,” Shannon Lyons, the East Coast regional director for the Surfrider Foundation, a group that tracks beach-access laws, told me. The nearest totally public beach might be a long drive away or far from public transit. Plus, there just aren’t enough of them. Although plenty of cities and states own entire beaches outright, much of the property bordering the shoreline rests in private hands. In New York and Florida, only about 40 percent of land by the coast is owned by the government. These numbers decrease as you travel north: In Maine, somewhere from 6.5 to 12 percent of the seaboard is fully open to anyone, depending on the source; in Massachusetts, it’s less than 12 percent. Of course, the remainder of the shoreline in those states isn’t entirely private; it’s most likely just adjacent to private property. But as oceanfront land has become some of the most desirable and expensive in the country, actually getting onto the public sections of those partially private beaches has become harder and harder.
Beaches did not always hold the allure they do today. Two centuries ago, they could be used as sites of trade, not leisure, and were clogged by vendors, shoppers, and fishermen. Real-estate agents also saw little value in them: Until 1898, in Connecticut, they were often included for free with the purchase of any nearby property, Kara Murphy Schlichting, the author of New York Recentered: Building the Metropolis From the Shore, told me. But by the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a peculiar combination of factors made the beach into a cultural obsession. Doctors began prescribing trips to the sea as cures for “melancholy,” and beaches came to be seen as places of relaxation. Soon after, a new industrial work schedule gave middle-class workers weekends off and the possibility of vacations. Some used that time to go to the ocean, eventually leading to the rise of urban beaches, such as those in Coney Island and Santa Monica. The real-estate bundles went away, and oceanfront property became a moneymaker. In Connecticut, by 1910, land along the water that a decade earlier had sold for $400 to $1,000 an acre was on the market for $3,000 to $10,000 an acre.
Seaside homes quickly morphed from something relatively accessible to people across class backgrounds into a luxury for the wealthy. These rich newcomers pushed out working-class and Black communities who had long lived on the coast, Schlichting told me. They also began to accuse beachgoers of trespassing. Invoking a legal threat like that, Schlichting said, was “very useful to landowners,” who might hope that the prospect of a fine or a night in jail would scare off sunbathers.