Beside the Sea: Access is everything

Image of child running in the surf shows hte importance of public beach access

Getting to the water regularly is a world-wide passion

My online friend Annabel, who lives far away in Australia but still somehow cares about water, told me I should write an essay on “7 reasons we all love to be beside the sea.” Intrigued by the idea, I started a list and found it’s not at all hard to come up with 77 reasons. I’m still adding to that list.

I suspect we all have our favorite reasons for wanting to visit the seaside. Maybe we’re fascinated by boats, or fond of casting a line into the waves in hopes of hauling in a fish. Maybe we love tide-pooling, or have a quirky habit of stacking flat rocks. Some, like Scottish artist Andy Goldsworthy enjoy building structures that the tide will wipe away.

While I was mulling the elemental romance that draws us to the seas, a slew of emails arrived in my inbox, informing me that a group of citizens was planning to meet with Island County Commissioner Helen Price Johnson about protecting public beach access sites on Whidbey Island.

No matter what draws us to the sea, we all need a way to get there

On Whidbey, we have roughly 100 public accesses. These are becoming more valuable, and more contentious, as more houses are built along the shore. Vacant land, forest trails and beach paths are getting farther apart. It’s becoming harder to get to the water’s edge. Some property owners would prefer the situation remain that way, and the public beach access advocates who got together at Neil’s Clover Patch understand the concern.

“People who own property near these beach accesses have a lot of fear about what the beach is going to look like if there are people in their place,” said one access advocate. “They think there’ll be condoms and beer cans.”

Mike McVay, organizer of the meeting agreed. “The concerns are legitimate. People do make messes. But this is all public property. Nobody can say you can’t use it because you’re a pig.”

McVay had gathered representatives from various organizations to tell Commissioner Price Johnson why beach access was important to their groups. The fellow slated to speak for fishermen called McVay that morning with a scheduling conflict. “Besides,” he told McVay, “anybody who needs to have it explained to them why beach access is important to a fisherman probably isn’t going to listen anyway.”

The accesses in question are mostly narrow pieces of land, primitive areas with quaint, island-y names like Limpet Lane. All most of them need to become useful is a clear sign.

Fred Lundahl, a kayaker, whose property is marked with its own sign: “Beach Walkers Welcome,” represented 300 members of the Whidbey Island Sea Kayakers Association. “We feel strongly that we should be encouraging the use of human powered watercraft around the island.” Signs facing the water would be a good idea, he said. “They’d allow us to come ashore without fear of trespassing.”

Some residents reported cases of homeowners encroaching into public access and asked the County to help solve the issues and post clear signs. A woman whose community shares access spoke of feeling like she needed to take her deed with her every time she goes to the beach. The president of a homeowner’s association agreed signs would help in his community where people trespass unknowingly when trying to figure out exactly where the public access is.

“If we want the public to respect our private property,” McVay said, “we need to respect public property.” This sense of shared responsibility was the prevalent attitude. Everyone wants to be cooperative and find solutions. But they also want property owners to know they are paying attention.

Public beach access in Washington, an issue with a past

“The tideland situation in Washington State is insane,” said my favorite rabble-rouser, Elliott Menashe, referring to the fact that some state tidelands were sold off by the legislature in the late 1800’s, creating a situation in which the deed for each individual piece of property must be looked at to determine who owns the beach.

Menashe showed maps and booklets about public beaches published by the Department of Natural Resources. But he pointed out that even armed with these it can be hard to find the access on the ground, indicating again that correct signage is vital.

Property owners have been known to put up misleading signs such as: “County property ends here.” In at least one case the sign is absolutely true, but conveniently leaves out the fact that there are miles of state tidelands beyond it.

Commissioner Price Johnson supported the effort, in theory. Her comment, “there is no resistance from the Board of County Commissioners to asserting the public’s right to access … at least not from the current Board,” met with quiet, wry chuckles.* In reality though, the general lack of funds makes progress on this issue, like so many others, tough.

In the end it was Ed Young of Whidbey Island Kayaking Co. who identified what may be the one thing that can bring property rights and public rights sides together, and why we should get this issue sorted sooner, rather than later; access is good for business. “I am the only kayaking outfitter on the island,” Young said. “In the San Juans there are roughly 30 kayaking companies. There are not enough access points here.” Young said he often loses potential clients to San Juan companies based on how far they have to paddle between access points. He also pointed out that sea kayakers are, by and large, affluent. “They stay in inns, they eat in restaurants. We’re missing a great opportunity.”

Whidbey Islanders interested in the issue of beach access can comment here, or send email to at whidbey dot com.

* This was a reference to the fact that Kelly Emerson, the newly elected member of the board who had not taken office yet, was suing her own County for coming onto her property to check on a building permit issue.

This article previously appeared in The South Whidbey Record.

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  1. Thanks for sharing the video of Andy Golsworthy’s transient structure. It’s a beautiful construction that resembles a whirlpool and a paper wasp hive. Lovely to watch it float away with the tide.

    1. My pleasure. I find Goldsworthy’s work fascinating – not least because he’s got such patience! I highly recommend watching the movie. It’s available on Netflix.

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