House bill would protect Martha’s Vineyard rights to public beach

A footbridge leads from the Quansoo parking lot across Crab creek to the private barrier beach. — File photo by Tim Johnson

Each of Martha’s Vineyard great ponds is separated from the ocean by narrow barrier beaches. Examples are Chilmark Pond, Tisbury Great Pond, and Edgartown Great Pond along the South Shore; Sengekontacket Pond on the east; Lake Tashmoo and James Pond on the north.

What would happen if a severe storm, perhaps combined with a rise in the level of the ocean, relocated a barrier beach landward so that a new beach is within the area formerly covered by the great pond?

A bill (H254) now before the Massachusetts House of Representatives would protect the rights of the public to that former great pond space. According to a press release, “H254, An Act Preserving Public Trust Rights in Land Affected by Ocean Erosion, addresses an important issue affecting our coastline. Sea-level rise, coastal erosion, and accretion are changing our coastline, and new barrier beaches are being formed further inland. As a result, issues have arisen regarding the ownership of land. This bill will clarify current law determining public ownership of land along our coast.”

H254 expands the definition of a great pond by adding the following paragraph:

“Where sea level rise, storms, or other natural processes have caused the landward or lateral movement of a barrier beach into an area which was previously occupied by the bottom of any great pond or onto any other public land, the portion of the barrier beach relocated into the former bottom of the great pond or onto other public land shall be and remain in public ownership.”

The bill is sponsored by Rep. Frank Smizik, chairman of the House Committee on Global Warming, and is one of several measures proposed by the committee to deal with the effects of climate change. According to Jonathan Goldberg, counsel to Representative Smizik, the bill is not designed to take private property. He explained that H254 applies only if “natural processes” move the beach. He added that the bill protects the area of the great pond by preventing previous owners of the barrier beach from claiming the newly formed barrier beach.

A hypothetical scenario might be the relocation of the section of south shore barrier beach known as Quansoo that separates Tisbury great pond from the Atlantic Ocean.

Deeded beach rights to a sliver of Quansoo come with a key to the gate that blocks road access and a parking lot the Quansoo Beach Association (QBA) maintains. The lots have sold for $300,000 or more. If a new barrier beach formed inside the present footprint of Tisbury great pond, H254 would prevent members of the QBA from claiming it as theirs.

The bill has been reported out favorably by the Joint Committee on the Environment, Natural Resources, and Agriculture. It is now in its third reading in the House. There is no timeline for when a vote on the bill will take place. Mr. Goldberg told The Times that H254 could come up for a vote in the House “next week or a year from now.” If it passes the House it would go to the State Senate, where it might undergo some changes. Eventually, a reconciled version of the House and Senate versions would have to be signed by the governor.

Mr. Goldberg conceded that it is probably more likely that a barrier beach would be swept away entirely than moved inland, but the formation of a new barrier beach landward is possible.

Section 35 of Chapter 91 of the Massachusetts General Laws defines great ponds as, “[fresh or salt water] ponds containing in their natural state more than ten acres of land.” Great ponds in Massachusetts are open to the public for the purpose of hunting, fishing, or boating, but if the pond is less than 500 acres, towns “may make and enforce rules and regulations relative to hunting, fishing, and boating thereon… subject to the approval of the commissioner of environmental protection.… All persons shall be allowed reasonable means of access to such ponds for the purposes aforesaid.”