How Oregon almost lost public access to its beaches
After a beachfront landowner discovered a loophole in the law and fenced off “his” beach, other oceanfront property owners were eager to follow suit. Governor Tom McCall was determined to stop them, and this is how he did it.
People play on the beach near Haystack Rock at Cannon Beach in the
summer of 1966. A little north of this scene, Surfsand Motel owner
William Hay had fenced off the dry sands of the beach, sparking the
next year’s fight over public beach access. (Image: Postcard by Morton
By Finn J.D. John — June 3, 2012
If you’re over 60 years old, and have lived in Oregon for most of your life, my apologies — because you surely already know this story.
For younger Oregonians and more recent arrivals, though, this is a piece of state history that you should know — especially if you enjoy occasional trips to the beach.
This is the story of Republican governor Tom McCall and the fight that saved the state’s beaches for public access, after certain beachfront landowners figured out that there was a loophole in the state law stipulating public beach ownership.
The public-beach law ... and the loophole in it
The beaches, as you’ve probably heard, were made public property in 1912 by Gov. Oswald West, who did it by declaring them highways. This sounds today like a stretch, but at the time, it was anything but; there wasn’t a road along the coast until the 1920s, and if you wanted to get from Arch Cape to Cannon Beach without detouring through Hillsboro, you pretty much had to use the beach.
This vintage 1930s postcard shows the beach still being used as a
highway. This car is driving over the roadbed blasted into Hug Point,
just south of the area of beach fenced off by William Hay in 1969.
Since that time, nearly everyone in the state had just sort of assumed that the beaches were public — all of the beaches, from the water to the vegetation line — and behaved accordingly.
Until, that is, a Portland real-estate man named William Hay, owner of the Surfsand Motel at Cannon Beach, figured out that the law didn’t actually say that. The law said the state owned the beach from the low-tide line to the high-tide line — that is, the “wet sand” part of the beach, the part that had actually been used as a highway.
So in 1966, Hay got busy fencing off the “dry sands” of Cannon Beach in front of his motel. The fenceline went all the way down to the high-tide line, as per the letter of the law, which meant at high tide it blocked the entire beach; beach strollers who timed their excursions wrong had to either get wet or trespass to get back again.
The Hug Point road in roughly 1915, with a wagon and
team driving it. The roadbed was cut into Hug Point to
wagons (and, later, cars) from having to drive
into the surf to get around the point, which
thrust right up
against the sea (hence its name; you had
to "hug the point"
to get around).
Whatever Hay’s skills in real estate might have been, they did not tread much into the domain of public relations. Complaints started flying thick and fast. In response, an investigator from the Highway Department came to Cannon Beach to look into the matter, and found that Hay had stocked “his” beach with cabanas, picnic tables and lounge furniture. Crossing the fence to get a closer look, he was accosted by a motel staffer and ordered off the “private beach.”
Highway Department attorneys looked up the statute and soon found the “loophole” in the law. So the House Highway Commission, under the leadership of Rep. Sidney Bazzett, produced a bill in the 1967 legislature that would fix the oversight.
But once word started getting out to the wealthy beachfront property owners that they actually owned their beaches, they got very excited. Immediately they started contacting legislators, including House Majority leader Robert Smith, and urging them to oppose the bill on property-rights grounds. When backers tried to send the bill to the House floor, they found they didn’t have the votes to get it there; yet the opponents didn’t have the votes to kill it, either. So there it sat, in purgatory, waiting for someone to notice it.
Soon, somebody did: Associated Press reporter Matt Kramer. It was Kramer who dubbed it “The Beach Bill” — previously it had been known only as H.B. 1601. Slowly, a few members of the public started realizing what was happening.
Tom McCall dives in
Meanwhile, Oregon Governor Tom McCall had been watching the progress of the Beach Bill. With Kramer reliably focusing on it, he decided now was the time to wade into the fracas, and dashed off a feisty and supportive letter to Bazzett.
“We cannot afford to ignore our responsibilities to the public of this state for protecting the dry sands from the encroachment of crass commercialism,” he wrote tartly — and then leaked the letter to the press.
Suddenly the Beach Bill was on the front page. The public sat up and stared. Then they started getting angry. It turned out that public access to the beach was something the average Oregonian felt pretty strongly about, even those who never went. When Portland TV station KGW (Channel 8) urged viewers to pester their representatives about it, more than 30,000 cards, letters and telegrams poured into Salem — the largest public response to any legislative issue in state history, before or since.
A crafty plan to steal more of the beach
The bill’s opponents, hoping to salvage the situation, resorted to what they must have fancied was a clever subterfuge. They proposed a change so that instead of owning the sands between low and high tide, the state would own the beach up to 7 feet above sea level.
It surely took some chutzpah to propose this in the face of the torrent of increasingly hostile attention these guys were getting from the public. Their proposal would have actually given away a healthy chunk of the “wet sands” — the part of the beach that everyone agreed belonged to the state.
Perhaps hoping to rush this change through before anybody got wise, the opponents tried to force the Highway Committee to vote on the amended bill. Through various maneuvers, Bazzett delayed. He’d been talking to the governor, and he knew there was a little surprise coming up for the plotters.
The crafty plan backfires
The trap sprang early on a Saturday morning in May, on the beach at Seaside. McCall and his entourage arrived in two helicopters, which set down on the beach.
“The politicians and the lawyers have got this beach situation all fouled up,” McCall told the waiting reporters, according to Walth’s account. “Now the scientists are here to straighten it out.”
He went on to explain that oceanographers from Oregon State University had determined that the best way to define the beach was as 16 feet above sea level — not seven feet, as the Legislature had hopefully suggested. As he spoke, surveyors in official-looking outfits were measuring and pounding stakes into the beach.
Then he explained: The top stake — pounded into the dry sand of the beach at a spot well below the line of vegetation — was where the OSU scientists thought the beach should start. The middle stake — farther toward the ocean, at the top edge of the wet sands — was where the current law placed the boundary.
Then he strode to the last stake, which was driven into the wet sand very near the surf and would, a few hours hence, be underwater. That, he told the reporters, was where the House leadership wanted the line to be.
The debate ends with a thud
It was a public-relations master stroke. It clearly illustrated the fundamental reasonableness of the governor’s position — which, remember, was more or less exactly what three generations of Oregonians had thought was their legally-stipulated birthright all along — as well as the deviousness of the Legislators in trying to roll it back. It made McCall’s opponents look like sneaky thieves.
After that, there was no stopping it. All but the most die-hard opponents caved, and the Beach Bill passed the House 57 to 3.
The Senate, which had been watching the bloodbath in the lower house with considerable interest, made sure the bill spent as little time as possible in their custody, and a few days later McCall was signing it safely into law.
(Sources: Walth, Brent. Fire at Eden’s Gate. Portland: OHS Press, 1994; Jelsing, Nadine. “The Beach Bill,” Oregon Experience (video production). Portland: OPB, 2007)