The Universal Notebook: The eternal vigilance of beach-going

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Back in the 1960s, Higgins Beach in Scarborough attracted teenagers from all over greater Portland.

Scarboro Beach, then known as Jordan’s Beach because old Mrs. Jordan sat on the access road in her beach wagon collecting parking fees, was the family beach, but Higgins was the hot beach.

I haven’t been to Higgins in 40 years, but the summer of 1965 I rode my motor scooter out Spring Street in Westbrook day after endlessly sunny day to Oak Hill and down to the shore. At the beach, I would buy a pack of Parliaments at the store, leave my scooter in Mrs. Hayden’s driveway, and walk down to the beach, slathered in baby oil, to broil and smoke and watch girls. Body surfing hadn’t been invented yet.

Mrs. Hayden was my favorite high school teacher. She was as responsible as anyone for my becoming a writer. She gave me Dylan Thomas to read. She encouraged me to write. One of the first newspaper articles I ever published was an account of Mrs. Hayden’s European vacation in the old Westbrook American.

Having a teacher who lived two houses from the beach was wonderfully convenient. In fact, having a friend who lives near a beach is one of life’s great luxuries. In the 1980s, once Scarboro Beach became the go-to beach, Dino and Barb Giamatti used to let us park at the old Atlantic House at one end of the beach and Gary Merrill let us park in his Prouts Neck driveway at the other. We had it made.

Scarboro Beach, a far superior strand of sand as it turned out, became popular with young people following a couple of unfortunate events, one natural, the other man-made.

First, we arrived at Higgins one summer to discover that winter storms had piled the sands up in steep berms and covered them with stinking, fly-infested piles of seaweed. Then the Town of Scarborough posted No Parking signs all around the little seaside neighborhood making it nearly impossible to access the beach without paying for parking.

Now I see that the Trust for Public Land and the Town of Scarborough are contemplating the purchase of the unpaved parking lot that allows a few dozen non-residents to access Higgins Beach each day. A great idea. A better idea would be to take down some of those No Parking signs and allow a little on-street parking.

Sand beaches are a rare natural resource. There’s only 40 miles of sand along Maine’s 3,500 miles of rockbound coast. So whatever public access can be provided is warranted. And remember, Maine and Massachusetts are the only two states in the nation where the intertidal zone is not in the public domain. The upland owner owns to the low tide mark, not the high tide mark as elsewhere.

When I was on the staff of Maine Times I covered Bell v. Town of Wells, the 1980s Moody beach access suit that established this unhappy fact. On Moody Beach, a bunch of out-of-state (mostly Massachusetts) tourists annoyed a bunch of out-of-state (mostly Massachusetts) cottage owners, so we all lost out. It may be the law, but that doesn’t make it right. All beaches should be public. I’ve never quite forgiven Portland attorney Peter Thaxter for prevailing in that historic carpetbagger case.

Some Maine beaches, of course, are public, but even popular family beaches such as Crescent Beach and Scarboro Beach are public in name only. As I recall, what the state actually owns at Scarboro Beach is a 90-foot wide strip. The rest of the sand, like that at Crescent, is leased from private owners.

So never take the right to go to the beach for granted here in colonial Maine. The price of sun bathing and body surfing is eternal vigilance.


Sidebar Elements

beem-edgar-op.jpgThe Universal Notebook is Edgar Allen Beem’s weekly personal look at the world around him.