“IN recent years, fences and barricades have blocked the public right to have access to our seas. We are becoming a landlocked people, fenced away from our own beautiful shores, unable to exercise the ancient right to enjoy our precious beaches.” This is how Senator Ralph Yarborough of Texas characterized the relationship between the American public and its coasts in 1969. Nearly a half-century later, those same words could have described much of the New Jersey and Long Island shorelines on the eve of Hurricane Sandy.
In the years between, up and down the Eastern Seaboard, beachfront property owners, wealthy municipalities and private homeowners’ associations threw up a variety of physical and legal barriers designed to ensure the exclusivity — and marketability — of the beach. These measures were not only antisocial but also environmentally destructive.
By increasing the value of shoreline property and encouraging rampant development, the trend toward privatizing formerly public space has contributed in no small measure to the damage storms like Hurricane Sandy inflict. Tidal lands that soaked up floodwaters were drained and developed. Jetties, bulkheads and sea walls were erected, hastening erosion. And sand dunes — which block rising waters but also profitable ocean views — were bulldozed.
It didn’t have to be this way. In 1967, Bob Eckhardt, a first-term congressman from Texas, came to Washington determined to do for the nation what he had done for the Texas coastline. As a state legislator, Mr. Eckhardt had passed the nation’s first open beaches law, the Texas Open Beaches Act of 1959, which defined all land below the vegetation line as belonging to the state for use by the people.
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