Written by Mark Feltner
PUBLIC ACCESS to beaches and waterways is increasingly fraught with conflict. Part of the problem is that so little coastal property is held in the public trust on the East Coast and elsewhere. In Virginia, according to the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, only 2 percent of the Bay shoreline and its tidal tributaries are open to the public.
In 2000, there were only 619 public access points - sites that provide access to beaches, fishing, boating and natural areas - in the Bay region. Of these, only 238 were in Virginia. Add that to the limited amount of land publicly held, available and accessible to the public on Virginia’s oceanfront, and it’s clear why there are so many conflicts over access
Amid this shortage, population growth is increasing the demand for beach and waterway access. More than 60 percent of all Americans live within 50 miles of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, the Gulf of Mexico and the five Great Lakes, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The population density of these areas is four times the national average, the agency states, and coastal population is expected to grow by 15 percent during the next two decades. With this rise in population, there has been a tremendous increase in the competing uses of coastal resources.
NOAA oversees the Coastal Zone Management Act, created by Congress in 1972 to manage coastal resources. In Virginia, the Department of Environmental Quality oversees the act at the state level.
“Although only 29 percent of Virginia’s land area lies within the coastal zone, more than 60 percent of Virginia’s citizens call it home,” according to the DEQ’s Web site. “Virginia’s coastal zone includes 5,000 miles of shoreline, four tidal rivers reaching as far as 100 miles inland, the Chesapeake Bay and Albemarle-Pamlico Sound watersheds, and the Atlantic Ocean coastline. Natural and cultural features range widely from the wild, undeveloped beaches of the barrier islands to the ‘hard’ shoreline of Hampton Roads’ port facilities.”
In recent years, local governments have understandably supported high-density and high-dollar development at their waterfronts to maximize their property-tax revenues. And, at the other end of the spectrum, environmentalists have sought to meet their agendas at places such as
Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
Meanwhile, some homeowners who live at public beaches and waterfronts have a sense of entitlement that it is “their beach” that they are “allowing” the public to visit. Lately, these folks have grown tired of what they consider public trespassing and have made efforts, legal and illegal, to restrict or eliminate public access. Public misbehavior at public access points has not helped this trend.
Beach and waterfront residents have learned the best way to cut off access is to remove public street parking, be it at Buckroe, Willoughby Spit, the North End or in Croatan.
All of this adds up to the general public no longer having much real access to the coast, waterfronts, and/or saltwater. All the while, however, obstructionists to public access still want the public to continue to pay for protecting and enhancing the coastal environment. Millions, if not billions, in local, state and federal tax dollars have been spent on beach replenishment, infrastructure projects and basic maintenance.
The Coastal Zone Management Act was established in part to protect public access. It spells out the principle that, where public monies are utilized, there shall be public access. Unfortunately, state and federal officials have not done a great job of defending that.
Through agency inaction and public apathy — who really wants to deal with these types of conflicts anyway? — the issue has fallen to local governments, which, again, have often decided to generate tax revenue at the expense of access.
Today, we have the façade of public access. In many cases, a waterfront area receives public money and is therefore required to include public access. However, when you drive by, you will see plenty of public access signs but essentially nowhere to park. So, in reality, these areas are only there for those who have the privilege and financial resources to live at the beach.
The public needs to speak up and demand that our local representatives, at a minimum, factor public-access into their decision-making. State and federal agencies need to engage in public-access issues, too, and help resolve conflicts.
Virginia’s local planning district commissions, or PDCs, do attempt to work on and for public access. However, they seem content to create access only where it is convenient and non-controversial. This also needs to change.
We’ve stood by and watched for too long as we’ve lost public access to our favorite fishing holes and to Virginia’s coastal waters. Coastal public access is important because it is a part of our culture and impacts the quality of life in the waterfront communities where we live. It is up to all of us to serve as watchdogs on the issue locally.
However bleak the current situation may seem, the tide can still turn back in favor of greater public access for today and for future generations.
Mark Feltner is president of Virginia Coastal Access Now, a nonprofit devoted to maintaining and enhancing public access to beaches and waterways. Its Web site is at www.vcanaccess.com