May 14 2014
So the response to my screed over the shenanigans in Popponesset Bay drew a lot of traffic into this blog — about 20X the normal flow over several days and setting the all-time traffic record for this blog since I started it ten years ago as a way to scratch my occasional itch to write. I generally try to avoid politics on this blog. Three years in the statehouse press gallery in the early 1980s sort of washed the taste for Massachusetts legislative politics out of my mouth for life, and as a former bartender, I knew well that religion and politics are the third-rails of civilized conversation. I also am very turned off by the perversion of the medium into very crazed “hate” blogs used to slander local politicians. There are more than enough moon-bats blogging and I don’t intend to become one.
But, as the tongue-in-cheek tagline of this blog says, this is a blog about clamming, an attempt to blend my personal and professional writing under one umbrella. A wise man — Stephen O’Grady — warned me long ago not to try to maintain multiple blogs. One is enough of a greedy child to feed, let alone several. The result has been a muddy mix of local stuff that I like — history, sailing, fishing — and pedantic digital marketing stuff ranging from Olympic sponsorship to tech trends. I avoid blogging about causes or using this to advance some personal agenda. The habits of an old reporter are hard to break, and it would have been unthinkable ten years ago for me to write with the kind of outraged invective I did last week when the news broke that the democratic process was being perverted by some pompous wealthy dickheads.
The story is amusing though. I have to tip my hat to ML Strategies, the lobbying arm of the law firm of Mintz Levin for going beyond the pale and buying off a lameduck State Rep to pull a classic Beacon Hill maneuver of sticking bizarre midnight amendments onto massive things like state budgets. This crap has been going on forever in Massachusetts. The corruption level of the Massachusetts legislature — especially during my days there when Billy Bulger ruled the senate like some Roman tyrant, and Tom McGee fought reform in the House with every dirty trick in the book — should never be underestimated. Your average state rep is less likable than a used-car salesman and half as honest.. Massachusetts politics should become the official spectator sport of the Commonwealth, as fun and mind blowing a spectacle as the Bruins or the Celtics. That some rich guys wrote a wicked big check to keep the groundling proles from cluttering up their oceanfront view is the least of our problems. This is a state of bagmen and angles.
But still, people ask me “what can we do?” I’ve done my time at the microphone at Conservation Commission hearings opposing rich people’s applications to build their piers into the harbor. I’ve written letters and earned the enmity of countless gaping buttholes who have more money than sensibility. Yet I also know people on the waterfront with hearts as big at the Ritz. Some give their beaches to the local yacht club for thirty years to use for a sailing program; others make special attempts to minimize their impact on the environment by banning lawn fertilizers and peeing and pooping into composting toilets.Then there are those who put creepy surveillance cameras disguised as bird houses on their beaches, and make our days just that much shittier by posting stern “PRIVATE BEACH” signs to discourage the kind of free access I knew on the Cape 40 years ago.
I’ve been rattled by screaming homeowners flipping out at me to GET OFF THEIR GODDAMN BEACH, even though I’m within my rights with a fishing rod or a clam license. I know cases where ancient public ways to water — little paths designated as a way for the public to get to the water to dig a clam or catch a fish — are obscured by abutting property owners deliberately planting shrubs, or sliding a kid’s swingset over the path, knowing as the years go by that the old timers who know those paths will eventually die or forget and the public won’t be trudging through their backyards ever again.
The problem on the beaches and the sense of entitlement started in 1650 when the colonists granted waterfront property owners in Massachusetts the unique right to own all of the land down to the “mean low water mark” allowing public access only in three circumstances: navigation, fishing/shellfishing, and fowling. That means you can’t walk on any part of the sand, including the wet sand exposed at low tide. You can swim in front of their beach (as long as your feet don’t hit the bottom above the nebulous “mean low water” mark. You can wade in the water if you have a fishing rod. You can dig clams. But you can’t sit and technically you can’t stroll.
Some beaches say “Private Beach. Walkers Welcome.” That’s nice of the property owner but also a way to forestall an “adverse possession” or taking by granting the public access through neglecting or abandoning their rights. I empathize with them not wanting some family of recent Russian emigres camping on the beach, tossing dirty pampers into the beachgrass and leaving behind their bait boxes while the men folk surfcast. But — if we want to get back at these jerks for throwing around their money demanding docks, fighting clammers, posting security guards, and erecting creepy spy cameras we need to repeal the waterfront property laws.
And that is not going to happen. The most powerful advocate of repealing the Colonial beach rights was Billy Bulger, who was outraged when some Chauncy Wigglesworth Ass Clown bellowed at him to get off his beach. Bulger filed legislation from 1976 to 1991 to change the law to permit walking between the high and low water marks and finally succeeded in 1991, only to have the state courts overrule the change as an unfair taking of private property without compensation.
If you want the full story about the shitshow that is beach rights in Massachusetts, take the time to read this superb article about the situation on Martha’s Vineyard.
I think the only way to take away the tyranny of the waterfront and to stop owners from building jetties, sea walls, hiring guards, posting signs, intimidating strollers and generally being douchebags is to make beach reform a referendum question and let the voters decide whether or not to take it away from them. The legislature is in their pocket so don’t expect a letter to the editor and your state rep to have any impact. Both of them are totally in the service of these people along with the massive real estate industry that encourages them to build commission inflating add ons like piers and cabanas. We just need around 70,000 signatures to force the question onto the ballot the way the bottle bill and Prop 2 1/2 and medical weed were voted in and get ready for a well funded counter-campaign the likes of which the state will never see.
Still, it’s a nice fantasy to imagine the democratic process truly having the last word on who owns the berm between shore and sea.