State of the Beach/State Reports/MA/Beach Access

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Massachusetts Ratings
Indicator Type Information Status
Beach Access83
Water Quality75
Beach Erosion9-
Erosion Response-8
Beach Fill6-
Shoreline Structures9 3
Beach Ecology6-
Surfing Areas25
Coastal Development{{{19}}}{{{20}}}
Sea Level Rise{{{21}}}{{{22}}}


Massachusetts is one of five coastal ocean states (the others are Delaware, Maine, New Hampshire and Virginia) that do not own the intertidal zone. As a result of a Colonial Ordinance enacted in 1647, private property extends to the low tide line (Mean Low Water). Although three important public rights were retained in the ordinance — fishing, fowling and navigation — the courts have generally been strict in holding that the public does not possess additional rights to the intertidal zone.

CZM has published Public Rights along the Shoreline, a brief primer on waterfront property law.

Although a majority of the Massachusetts shoreline is privately owned (see below), the state is committed to helping people enjoy publicly owned coastal areas, with the Executive Office of Environmental Affairs (EOEA) taking a leading role in making the coastline accessible to the public. Since the late 1970s, when a concerted push toward shoreline acquisition began, EOEA agencies have spent millions of dollars to purchase, improve, and maintain shoreline property, and to provide grants to coastal communities to promote public access. EOEA's Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR, formerly the Department of Environmental Management and the Metropolitan District Commission), Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management (CZM), Division of Conservation Services (DCS), and Department of Fish and Game (DFG) are all involved in coastal access improvement. Although acquisition efforts have declined in the last decade due to skyrocketing land costs and a scarcity of undeveloped coastal properties, the grand total of more than 100 miles of state-purchased shoreline since 1977 is impressive, and more is being bought as additional funding becomes available. One new source is NOAA's Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservation Program (CELCP), under which Massachusetts has developed a comprehensive plan that identifies priority candidate areas for the selection of future acquisition projects. The state plan was approved by NOAA in February 2008 and is valid for a five year period. CZM solicits potential priority projects every year in response to a NOAA Federal Funding Opportunity Notice, ranks these projects according to the priorities identified in the plan, and then nominates the state’s highest ranked projects to NOAA for CELCP funding. In Federal Fiscal Year (FFY) 2007 the DCR in partnership with the Town of Plymouth was awarded approximately $2.25 million for the preservation of the Center Hill Beach Project in Plymouth, which included a 28-acre parcel along Cape Cod Bay including more than one-half mile of undeveloped beach shoreline, and also included a 50-acre match property located just inland. In FFY 2009 the DCR in partnership with Massachusetts Audubon, and the Town of Wareham, was awarded approximately $1.986 million for the purchase of a conservation easement on approximately 95 acres. Including the surrounding protected properties, more than 260 acres either are or will be protected, including more than one and a third miles of undeveloped shoreline along Buzzards Bay. For FFY 2010, CZM nominated two more projects seeking approximately $5.8 million in CELCP funding from NOAA.

In addition to buying coastal property, the state provides coastal access in other ways. For example, by regulating coastal development under the Public Waterfront Act (Chapter 91 of the General Laws), the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) secures many public access benefits along the shoreline, particularly on filled areas within developed ports and harbors. DCR also has the authority to acquire public "strolling" rights along the water's edge of beaches and other appropriate sections of the coast, although only one such easement has been acquired to date. In 1999 CZM published a 200-page handbook to help community groups reclaim and protect their historic rights-of-way to the sea, such as municipal easements, public landings, footpaths, and trails. Finally, CZM operates a Coastal Access Small Grants Program, when funding is available from DCR, to support local and regional projects that improve and enhance the general public's recreational access to the coast. Principal categories of funding include: 1) establishing new public coastal access opportunities; 2) developing plans for design and management of public coastal properties; 3) reclaiming historical public ways to the sea; 4) enhancing or restoring existing access points and facilities; and 5) developing public coastal access educational initiatives.

A dispute between the towns of Orleans and Chatham on Cape Cod has developed that affects both beach access and beach ecology. Historically the towns have had an agreement that allows access to Chatham's part of the beach, called North Beach, through Orleans' part of the beach, called Outer Beach. At the end of June 2006 Orleans officials closed all of their Nauset Beach access south of the parking lot for about a month to off-road vehicles to protect nesting piping plovers. That effectively closed the Chatham portion of the beach to all but boaters. Orleans selectmen and state officials have claimed that Chatham did not have plover monitors and did not post signs identifying habitat areas. Selectmen from the two towns were scheduled to meet in late September 2006 to try to resolve the issues.

In February 2011 the state Appeals Court ruled that some families living in Hingham’s Crow Point neighborhood can continue using a nearby beach that others living closer had blocked off in 2004. The decision set aside a Land Court ruling that agreed with the blockers while incorrectly interpreting part of a 17th-century ordinance that is still state law regarding beach rights. The appellate ruling applies to half of the 24 families that sued for access to the beach because an easement covered only 12 properties specifically mentioned in the 1929 will of Samuel Downer. Read more.

In December 2016 Judge Robert B. Foster cleared the way for homeowners seeking access rights to Town Neck Beach—at least temporarily—in a complex, 12-page decision issued from Massachusetts Land Court. In granting the homeowners’ request for a temporary injunction against fencing and “no trespassing” signs barring their path to the sea, Judge Foster ruled that an old right of way is still valid. The decision strikes down the counterclaim of a condominium association whose members own beachfront property abutting the path. They argued that because Town Neck Beach has drastically eroded over the years, the public beach no longer exists and therefore the right of way has also vanished. But Judge Foster disagreed. “Since plaintiffs’ use of the way is not restricted to use of the town beach, even if the town beach is completely eroded the easement has not been extinguished,” the judge wrote. “Given this, whether the pre-existing town beach land does not remain today is irrelevant. Plaintiffs have the right to walk to the end of the easement and enter the waters of Cape Cod Bay directly from the way." More.

Site Inventory

25% of the shoreline in Massachusetts is publicly owned, according to Pogue P. and Lee V., 1999, "Providing Public Access to the Shore: The Role of Coastal Zone Management Programs," Coastal Management 27:219-237. Public ownership includes town beaches and state beaches (mainly managed by the Department of Environmental Management and the Metropolitan District Commission). Privately owned beaches include those owned by non-governmental organizations such as the Duxbury Beach Association, Trustees of Reservations, and individual private property owners.

The document referenced above identifies 671 public access sites. This corresponds to about one public access site for every half mile of shoreline.

In 1990, the Department of Environmental Management (now Department of Conservation and Recreation) published a study on beach access, Massachusetts Coastal Land Inventory: Extent and Distribution of Publicly Owned Shoreline. The report used data from 1986 to 1987, so the report is somewhat dated. Access descriptions in regions and communities vary greatly in level of detail provided. Nonetheless, the conclusions from the report show that Massachusetts has a limited amount of public access.

The report states that Massachusetts has 1,342 miles of coastal frontage, which is all land 300 feet landward of the highest point the ocean can reach. Of the total coastal frontage, 363 miles are publicly owned, which is 27% of the total coastal land. This land is owned by a variety of entities including: federal, state, and local government, and nonprofit conservation organizations.

The Draft 2006 Massachusetts CZM Access Assessment and Strategy reports that publicly owned coastal frontage has increased since 1995 by an estimated 12 miles, to a total of approximately 375 miles. At last count there were 195 miles of state, county, and local parks (Massachusetts Coastal Land Inventory, DEM, 1990); 325 public beach access sites totaling 186.9 miles (Massachusetts Coastal Land Inventory, DEM, 1990); and 720 Rights-of-Way (Compilation of Public Rights of Way Leading to the Shore, Dept. of Public Works, Division of Waterways, 1963).

Massachusetts CZM has taken significant strides in increasing the amount of information available about publicly accessible beaches and other public recreational facilities in the Commonwealth since 2000. A revised edition of The Massachusetts Coast Guide to Boston and the North Shore (Coast Guide) was published in 2004 and was last printed in 2005. The Coast Guide identifies hundreds of diverse coastal areas that are open to the public. The coastline offers much more than large public beaches on hot summer days. This guide shows the location of many smaller, more intimate areas that are not so well known. It acquaints the reader with less familiar coastal landscapes by showing the way to rocky shores, secluded coves, tidal creeks, marshes, estuaries, and islands (some of which can be visited only by boat). In addition, boat ramps, piers, trails, visitor centers, restrooms, and dozens of other facilities and amenities are noted. The detailed maps show the different coastal access areas and the roads to take to find them. Although brief, the site descriptions give a sense of what you will find when at each site.

An online version of the original The Coast Guide is now available. It includes nearly 400 public access sites from Salisbury to Hingham—ranging from expansive beaches to out-of-the-way scenic vistas. In addition, Coast Guide Online is an interactive mapping tool developed by CZM. Designed for use on mobile phones and tablets, as well as desktop computers, Coast Guide Online includes more than 1,800 sites along the Massachusetts coast that are owned by government agencies (state, local, and federal) and nonprofits and open to the public. They include beaches, rocky coasts, shore-side parks, public boat ramps, local harbor walks, secluded coves, marshes and creeks, scenic overlooks, islands, small rights-of-way, and much more. With this tool, users can zoom in to view sites and click pop-up boxes displaying the site name, manager/owner, links to additional information, and a photo (if available). Coast Guide Online will continually be updated as new sites and new information become available.

CZM now maintains a variety of online tools to help the public get to and enjoy Massachusetts beaches and other coastal public access sites. From interactive maps of areas open to the public, to descriptions of coastal trails, to information about public rights along the shoreline, CZM’s Public Access Program website can help connect you to the coast.

CZM has gathered and published information on Coastal Trails that provides links to almost 30 coastal trails in Massachusetts.

Massachusetts CZM has also published a comprehensive summary of public coastal access information.

The Department of Fish and Game's (DFG) Office of Fishing and Boating Access (FBA) has published Public Access to the Waters of Massachusetts, a full-color publication that includes 90 individual site maps and descriptions of more than 200 access points to state waterways. The 150-page guide also includes information about sportfishing piers, fishing in fresh and marine waters, boating law, rights of access, and information about boating and fishing programs in the DFG.

The Department of Conservation and Recreation has this list of information on Saltwater Ocean Beaches.

A complete listing of all beaches in Massachusetts can be found here.

You can get to Lighthouse Beach near the Chatham Lighthouse, but you can't go in the water. In a decision that ran counter to years of work by selectmen and the recreation commission, the Chatham board of health voted 4-0 in January 2009 to close the popular beach to all swimming, based on safety concerns because of swift currents and sharp drop-offs. The town must decide how to patrol the beach to keep beach-goers out of the water. A beach patrol plan was scheduled to go before a town meeting in May 2009.

The Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation has a very nice parks site that lets you search by name, region, recreation, and activity, etc.

Beach Attendance Records

The most recent quantitative data indicating demand for coastal access in the Commonwealth is contained in a 2000 study commissioned for the State Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan (SCORP). Survey results showed that "coastal beaches and shoreline" continued to be the most popular recreational resources in the state, visited at a median rate of 12 times per year by an estimated 61 percent of state residents, with even higher participation levels (70-83%) in evidence in the easterly regions of the state. Overall, visitation is projected to be 111 million person-trips per year, with the average one-way distance traveled being approximately 45 miles. At nearly twice the distance typically traveled to any other type of recreation area (except for more distant mountains), this datum is clearly indicative of the continuing strong desire among state residents to engage in shoreline recreation.

Economic Evaluation of Beaches

A three-part study An Assessment of the Coastal and Marine Economies in Massachusetts, produced by the Donahue Institute at the University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass), provides an analysis of the economic value of coastal and marine economy output as well as an overview of employment, wages, business activities and trends within important sectors of the Massachusetts marine economy for 2004 (latest available data). UMass completed this report under contract with CZM as part of the Ocean Management Initiative.

The UMass team used a standard, widely-used economic model called IMPLAN for the bulk of the analysis. The Final Report also includes information from a business owner survey and provides recommendations of next steps for further study. Links to the project scopes of work and each section of the three-part study are provided below.

Scope of Work

Telephone Survey of Business Owners Scope of Work
Overall Project Scope of Work

Final Report

Report I - An Assessment of the Coastal and Marine Economies of Massachusetts
Report II - Next Steps for Further Study of the Coastal and Marine Economies of Massachusetts
Report III - Data Tables

Some of the study's key findings related to coastal tourism and recreation were as follows:

  • The Coastal Tourism and Recreation sector in the coastal zone directly employs 119,420 persons.
  • Within the sector, 73 percent of employment (87,499 jobs) is related to food services, 15 percent (18,296 jobs) is related to accommodations, and 11 percent (13,625 jobs) is related to entertainment and recreation.
  • Payroll within the sector totals $2.3 billion annually, with average annual wages of $19,580 per employee.
  • Secondary employment impacts of the sector create over 38,011 additional jobs within the region, an employment multiplier of 1.32.
  • Annual production output (2004) totals about $8.7 billion including about $3.6 billion in secondary impacts.

Also, the draft Baseline Assessment of the Massachusetts Ocean Planning Area has an Economic Valuation chapter where it is stated:

"The [coastal] tourism and recreation sector employed 125,800 individuals in 2006. [...] Altogether, $14.2 billion were generated in this sector in 2006, an increase of 8.6% over 2005. [...] Activities associated with this sector include recreational boating, saltwater angling, wildlife watching, and beach visits. At least 20% of visitors to Massachusetts visit Cape Cod and the Islands, the second most visited destination after Boston. Cape Cod has many coastal resources that make it attractive to visitors, mainly its beaches and bays. The main activities in which Massachusetts residents participate are swimming (44%), coastal viewing (34%), boating (19%), and diving (3%)."

A somewhat dated (perhaps 10 years old) State of the Coasts report by Coast Alliance, indicated that coastal industries contribute $70.7 billion to the economy of Massachusetts.

Overall state tourism spending in 2004 was $12.46 billion, supporting 125,300 jobs. (Massachusetts Office of Travel & Tourism)

General Beach Economics Reference Documents

NOAA's Office for Coastal Management (OCM) has written a discussion of the recreational value of beaches, in the context of beach fill projects. In 2009 OCM released Introduction to Economics for Coastal Managers, a basic introduction to economic ideas and methods that can be applied to coastal resource management. The economic concepts provided in this introduction are illustrated through several case studies. Other OCM/Digital Coast publications can be found here.

The following two websites provide information on the economic value of coasts and the ocean throughout the country.

The National Ocean Economics Program (NOEP) provides a full range of the most current economic and socio-economic information available on changes and trends along the U.S. coast and in coastal waters. You can download data on jobs and GDP associated with specific types of coastal activities for each coastal state. You also can download data on commercial fishing and landings. The NOEP made public their fully updated Non-Market Valuation website in September 2008. The largest database in the world of studies documenting the environmental and recreational values of ocean resources, the website now includes 1) an updated methodologies section, 2) frequently asked questions, 3) examples of how Non-Market valuation influences public policy, and 4) an expanded table summarizing valuation estimates from across the United States. In 2014 NOEP released an updated State of the U.S. Ocean and Coastal Economies - 2014, which points out that there is an imbalance between the economic importance of coasts and coastal oceans and the federal support for stewardship of these resources. According to the report, coastal states supply over 81 percent of American jobs and contribute $13 trillion to the economy, or 84 percent of GDP. More on this here. The National Ocean Economics Program previously released State of the U.S. Ocean and Coastal Economies - 2009, which presents time-series data compiled over the past 10 years that track economic activities, demographics, natural resource production, non-market values, and federal expenditures in the U.S. coastal zone on land and water. The report states that coastal states account for more than 80 percent of the U.S. economy. The most recent report released by NOEP is the State of the U.S. Ocean and Coastal Economies - 2016. The Center for the Blue Economy (CBE) at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey now houses the National Ocean Economics Program (NOEP).

The website of Restore America's Estuaries has a report The Economic and Market Value of Coasts and Estuaries: What's At Stake?. According to the report, U.S. coasts and estuaries that have been protected and managed in a sustainable way are worth billions. Beaches, coastal communities, ports, and fragile bays are economic engines that drive and support large sectors of the national economy. The report focuses on aspects of coasts and estuaries that are most dependent on ecologically healthy conditions. The authors also examined a growing body of research that reveals the economic consequences of environmental change in coastal and estuary ecosystems.

A report A Review and Summary of Human Use Mapping in the Marine and Coastal Zone was published in December 2010. This report was prepared by ERG for NOAA's Coastal Services Center. The report evaluated different methods and approaches to measure human uses of the coastal and marine environment. The uses were divided into 1) military and industrial uses, 2) consumptive uses (e.g., fishing) and 3) non-consumptive activities (e.g., swimming, surfing, kayaking).

The economic value of beaches can increase or decrease due to a number of factors, including beach width; the presence or absence of amenities such as parking, restrooms or lifeguard services; the suitability of the beach for activities such as surfing or swimming; and the presence or absence of pollution and beach litter. In June 2014 NOAA published an infographic on the high cost of marine debris based on the report Assessing the Economic Benefits of Reductions in Marine Debris: A Pilot Study of Beach Recreation in Orange County, California, which was prepared by Industrial Economics, Inc. for NOAA's Marine Debris Division. It found that having debris on the beach and good water quality are the leading factors in deciding which beach residents visit. Reducing marine debris by even 25 percent at beaches in and near Orange County, California, could save residents approximately $32 million during the summer by not having to travel long distances to other beaches. Beach characteristics were collected for 31 popular Southern California public beaches from San Onofre Beach to Zuma Beach. Orange County residents were also surveyed on their recreation habits, including how many day trips they took to the beach from June - August 2013, where they went, how much it cost them, and which beach characteristics are important to them. The results provided in an estimate if how much Orange County residents would potentially benefit, including how often they visit beaches and how much they would save in travel costs, over a summer season by reducing marine debris at some or all of these 31 beaches. The study focused on Orange County because of the number and variety of beaches, their importance to permanent residents, ease of access, and likelihood that marine debris would be present. Researchers believe that, given the results, the study could be modified for assessing similar coastal communities in the United States.

For additional general discussion of the economic impacts of beaches, please see the article Economic Impact of Beaches.

Perception of Supply and Demand

According to the CZM Draft 2006 Access Assessment, both the 2000 and 1995 SCORP surveys revealed that Massachusetts residents are not satisfied with existing opportunities for coastal recreation. Approximately one-third of the respondents pointed to a need for additional beach/shoreline facilities, consistent with the high need indicated generally for water-based facilities and for swimming areas in particular (the single most needed type of facility statewide).

The most pervasive impediment to providing adequate access to the shoreline is the fact that a large percentage of the Massachusetts coast is privately owned. Acquisition efforts that increased the amount of publicly owned or accessible coastline by nearly 100 miles in the 1970s and 1980s have declined due to skyrocketing land costs and a scarcity of undeveloped coastal properties. In the last decade state environmental agencies have completed 36 coastal acquisitions that have brought roughly 2500 acres into public ownership. Fewer than half (15) of these acquisitions were conducted between 1995 and 1999. It is important to note that the number of coastal acres acquired in the last decade include a variety of habitat types including a significant amount of salt marsh. Therefore, they do not necessarily all contribute to an increase in shorefront miles available for public access.

Public Education Program

CZM maintains a public education and information program. Through this program, CZM produces a variety of brochures, guidebooks, maps, and other materials to help inform and educate the public on beach access and other issues that affect the coast. CZM formerly produced Coastlines, an annual magazine on coastal issues. In addition, CZM produces CZ-Mail, a monthly electronic newsletter.

CZ-Tip - 10 Ways to Enjoy and Protect Massachusetts Beaches gives 10 ways to find the best beaches, ensure a safe and fun visit, and protect and improve the environment along the way.

CZM sponsors COASTSWEEP, the statewide beach cleanup that thousands of people participate in each September. CZM also holds workshops on a variety of coastal management topics. CZM's public outreach efforts are supported by the entire staff and are led by specialists in communications, public information, and graphic arts.

CZM's Website provides a nice summary of Public Rights Along the Shoreline. There is also a page of links to outside resources, including coastal and marine educational resources.

Contact Info

David Janik
Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservation Program Contact
Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management
(508)291-3625 x20

Rebecca Haney
Coastal Geologist and Hazards Coordinator
The Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management
(617) 626-1200

Stephen McKenna
The Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management

Bruce Carlisle
Massachusetts Coastal Zone Management
(617) 626-1205

State of the Beach Report: Massachusetts
Massachusetts Home Beach Description Beach Access Water Quality Beach Erosion Erosion Response Beach Fill Shoreline Structures Beach Ecology Surfing Areas Website
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