Larry Bitte was attending a family gathering in 1967 when an aunt came in and complained of being thrown off the beach in front of the Surfsand Motel.
“They had fenced off part of the beach for their guests,” recalled Bitte, who was a graduate student in biochemistry at what was then the University of Oregon Medical School. “They told her she couldn’t walk through there. I went down there and had some words with them. Being a native Oregonian, I said, ‘They can’t do that.”’
Bitte sought help from anatomy professor Bob Bacon and their outrage became a kind of Minuteman’s shot heard ‘round Oregon that helped stir Gov. Tom McCall and the Legislature to enact the Oregon Beach Law.
For the past 30 years, the law has kept the state’s sandy oceanfront beaches open to the public through a recreational easement.
Despite the Beach Law, defenders of the coast are still fighting threats to the access needed to reach the beach from development spurred by Oregon’s population boom, attempts to control erosion with riprap and seawalls, and precarious funding for state parks.
The most serious threat to beach access came this year, when the Oregon Parks Department said it would close 25 coastal parks and cite trespassers because it didn’t have the money to keep them open. The Legislature came up with money to keep the parks open two more years, but killed Gov. John Kitzhaber’s proposal to create a permanent parks fund with a tax on beverage containers.
This year, the town of Gearhart had to give up a public easement to Little Beach after the owner of the $3 million estate through which it passed complained that people using the three-quarter-mile path were leaving syringes on the beach. Voters rejected a $700,000 bond to regain the easement. The law’s only court loss involved Little Whale Cove in Depoe Bay, an estate turned into a gated community, where the Supreme Court decided that the cove didn’t front on the ocean.
“You think of this thing having so much space it will never be gone, but it will be gone in short order,” said Fran Recht, president of the Oregon Shores Conservation Coalition, who brought to Oregon memories of New Jersey beaches blocked by fences.
A booming economy in the Portland area has made Oregon one of the fastest growing states in the country, and affluent newcomers and retirees are building homes on the coast, said Lincoln County planning director Matt Spangler.
“The geography conspires to focus all this development on a relatively narrow band right along the coast,” he said. “Things are moving and people want to recreate.”
The new homes and gated communities are going up along sections of coast that were never built on, walling off some traditional ways to get to the beach and making people think the beaches in front of them are private, Recht said.
Riprap and seawalls built by homeowners to keep their cottages from washing into the sea are robbing the beach of the sand it needs to replenish itself, she added.
“The state has a strong egalitarian spirit and a lot of that populist egalitarian spirit centers around the natural beauty and access to the outdoors that in other places is reserved for the economic elite,” said Robert Liberty, executive director of the land use watchdog group 1000 Friends of Oregon.
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