How Two Leaders Freed the Beaches

Posted by OCVA / June 24, 2010

Once I was talking to a class of high schoolers and, as an example of risk-taking, mentioned Olympic gold medalist Dick Fosbury.

I got two dozen blank stares.

Fosbury was the Medford High and Oregon State high jumper who, in the tumultuous ’60s, literally turned his back on the establishment to invent a new way of going over the bar.

But when I asked for a show of hands, I realized not a single student knew of him. All assumed athletes had just always flipped backward over the high-jump bar.

Nope.

So, when I saw Monday’s Associated Press story about how folks in New Jersey, Florida and California are wrestling with private beach ownership, I imagined some readers being reminded that we shouldn’t take our public shoreline for granted.

But I also imagined ho-hums from those unfamiliar with the likes of Oregon Govs. Oswald West and Tom McCall.

They’re the two guys most responsible for our 320 miles of beaches being unfenced. The two guys you can thank when you, say, walk unimpeded for eight miles from Yachats to Waldport. Or note that Oregon, along with Hawaii, is one of only two states in the union where the public owns all the beaches.

McCall, a Republican, in 1967 spearheaded passage of one of the most far-reaching measures of its kind in the nation: a beach bill that established public ownership of the land along the coast.

“The beach bill is more than just a piece of legislation, it is a fundamental part of what makes Oregon a place we love to call home,” former Secretary of State Bill Bradbury once said.

Even if McCall successfully overcame a small rip tide of opposition, you can’t tell his success story without first telling West’s. Both are splendidly twined in Brent Walth’s “Fire at Eden’s Gate” (Oregon Historical Society), a book on McCall that doubles as the finest post-World War II portrait of Oregon available.

In 1909, West defeated Republican Jay Bowerman, future father of future track and field guru Bill Bowerman, for governor. A land-fraud investigator, West had a passion to keep public lands public. Although by the turn of the century only 23 miles of the Oregon coast had been sold to private parties — and, unlike California, nobody was fencing off beaches — he worried about land speculators changing that.

Ah, but to run a campaign to give the coastline public designation risked alarming the Legislature and triggering a land grab. So, as he later wrote: “I drafted a simple short bill declaring the seashore from the Washington line to the California line a public highway. I pointed out that thus we would come into miles and miles of highway without cost to the taxpayer.”

The 1913 legislature passed the bill without fanfare. The Highway Commission never made any pretense of building roads on the shore. And, in 1947, the legislature changed the designation of the sands from “highway” to “recreation area.”

But as the decades passed, a flaw in West’s bill made it a ticking time bomb. The bill said public ownership extended from low tide to high. Thus, over the years, 112 miles of dry sands had been bought by private parties, even if the state considered it belonging to everyone.

In 1967, the time bomb exploded. William Hay, a Portland real estate broker who owned the Surfsand Motel at then-sleepy Cannon Beach, fenced off a private beach from the motel to the high-tide mark.

The Highway Department quickly drafted a new bill that would give the state ownership of the coast’s entire beach line, up to the vegetation line above the dry sands. That hit some like a tsunami.

Enter Gov. McCall, a six-foot-five maverick who — as his famous “visit-but-don’t-stay” comment suggests — could be ferocious on land use issues. To gain public support for the bill, he got the press involved, first with a leaked letter and then with a high-profile visit to the Surfsand Motel.

His entourage, including reporters, scientists and surveyors, arrived in two helicopters. He grumbled to motel guests about Hay’s audacity to stick up no-trespassing signs. And at one point, literally drew a line in the sand, which, of course, the photographers loved.

Ultimately, a compromise was reached: The state wouldn’t take property away from private owners; however, it would have the right to zone the land for what it thought was in the best interest of the people, which it decided was public ownership of everything from the low tide mark to 16 vertical feet above that. Essentially, all sand, wet or dry.

On July 6, 1967, the landmark beach bill passed, 57 to 3.

Never mind that McCall gladly basked in the spotlight. At the bill’s signing, he deferred to a quote from Gov. Oswald West, who had died in 1960: “No local selfish interest should be permitted, through politics or otherwise, to destroy or even impair this great birthright of our people.”

Bob Welch is at 541-338-2354 or bob.welch@registerguard.com.

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