The access road to Duxbury Beach.

Oversand vehicle permits for Duxbury Beach became available recently, prompting a flurry of conversation about who would get one this season, and how they planned to enjoy this privilege. And for me, it raised – once again – a dilemma about driving on the beach in the first place.

Before I had a child of my own, the notion of driving onto Duxbury Beach was irrelevant. I could park and walk to my own beaches in Marshfield, toting a chair, a book, and a bottle of water. I didn’t require much to enjoy the beach and I didn’t need to get there, or home, in a hurry. Adding a young child to the mix – and his truck, pail, shovel, snack, drink, sunscreen, towel and diaper changing paraphernalia – complicated matters. I still went, because my son loved it, but I grumbled about hauling out stuff over the tall dune at Rexhame or up the road from Green Harbor’s public parking lot.

Over time, the beach became less of a draw for us. But there were rare occasions when a friend with an oversand permit — as well as a vehicle large enough to accommodate us — would invite us to Duxbury Beach, and we soon learned what an appealing alternative this was! Pack up the car, drive directly onto the beach, park, and enjoy. It was quick and convenient . . . but for me, the nature writer, it was also guilt-inducing. Was it really okay for us to be driving on the beach?

An understanding of beach mechanics is essential when considering this question. Barrier beaches like Duxbury are unstable environments. Rising and falling tides constantly shift the sand. Dunes help to lessen the effects of storms. So in order to keep a beach intact over time, its dunes must be nourished and protected.

What does it take to protect a dune in a developed area? Money. For much of the past century, there has been a fee associated with the use of Duxbury Beach. The fees are fed right back into beach maintenance and preservation.

People used to drive wherever they wanted on Duxbury Beach, tearing up and flattening the dunes. Then in 1954, Hurricane Carol took its toll and served as a wake-up call for the town. Citizens began to rally around beach preservation. Some care was taken to rebuild the dunes, installing snow fence and planting beach grass to help prevent sand from washing away. Eventually a summer traffic patrol was approved.

Back then, the beach belonged to a group of private owners, the Duxbury Beach Association (DBA). The DBA built the resident and visitor parking lots and leased the beach to the town; the town, in turn collected parking fees. (In 1964, it was $1 for residents and $2 for non-residents.)

In 1975, the beach’s management was reorganized as a nonprofit, becoming the Duxbury Beach Reservation (DBR). Its mission statement included the equally-rated points of restoring and preserving the beaches in their natural state, and maintaining access both for Duxbury residents and the general public. Like its predecessor, the DBR leased the beach to the town.

Disaster struck in 1978, when the infamous blizzard caused 26 major wash-throughs, plus numerous partial breaches. Some dunes were flattened, and deep drifts of sand and stone covered the main parking lot. The road to The Gurnet and Saquish was completely destroyed in some sections.

After that, beach conservation efforts intensified. It took several years, but a right of way along the bay side of the beach was constructed, sharply delineated by post and cable fencing. Snow fence and grass planting efforts were stepped up, and over time the beach was significantly restored.

But the No-Name Storm of 1991 was even more destructive. Again, there were breaches and numerous washovers; many dunes were obliterated, and the road to the Gurnet and Saquish sustained major damage. Grass planting and snow fencing proved once again to be effective remedies. And added to the mix this time was a crackdown on oversand vehicles.

Prior to 1992, vehicles could drive almost anywhere on the beach, but beginning that year, the DBR began restricting traffic to a single lane, east of the dunes. Two crossovers provided access to the beach, and parking was permitted only in a single line in a designated area. The DBR measured the beach to see how many cars could fit on it. They set the limit at 500 at any one time, and divided this into 250 resident and 250 non-resident admissions.

You may ask, “Why so many non-residents?” This is another key point in the dilemma. The fact that Duxbury Beach has always been accessible to the public is one of the primary factors in its continued existence. In the 1950s and 60s there were a number of attempts by the state to take the beach by eminent domain. Because the DBA could prove that there was public access to the beach, it was able to maintain ownership. It’s worth noting here that it’s the parking and access fees that pay for beach maintenance – not property taxes.

Readers may be surprised to learn that the shorebird monitoring program, which protects two threatened species — piping plovers and least terns – actually helps to keep the beach open to the public. Funded by the annual lease, this program ensures the protection of these birds as required by the Federal Endangered Species Act. Were it not for the presence of the town’s Endangered Species Officer, large sections of the beach would be closed during nesting season (most of the summer).

On top of that, the town is obliged by the state to keep the right of way out to Saquish open at all times. Are you following me here? Duxbury is bound by state law to keep the road open, and bound by federal law to protect the birds. This all requires money. Where does the money come from? Parking fees! Without recreational access to the beach, there would be no money for ecological concerns. Without tireless efforts to preserve the beach, there would be no beach left to enjoy. It’s an endless cycle . . . and a delicate balance.

So to answer the question at last, what is the impact of all these vehicles on the beach? I was relieved to learn that the DBR conducted numerous studies and – now that traffic is controlled and shorebirds are protected — the ecological damage from vehicles is negligible.

This year, oversand vehicle permits cost $160 for residents and $295 for non-residents. Parking in the town lot, which holds 440 cars, is $80 annually. Non-residents can park in an adjacent lot for $15 per day. While only 500 vehicles can fit on the beach at any given time, permit sales are not subject to limits. Last year around 4,000 resident stickers were sold, as well as around the same number of non-resident, bringing in about $1.7 million total.

Duxbury Beach is one of the most beautiful places on the South Shore. An occasional visit is absolutely worth the non-resident parking fee. Knowing what the beach – and its caretakers – has sustained over the years makes it seem even more precious. If you don’t like crowds, try visiting at off-hours. It’s just as spectacular on a sunny spring or autumn day as it is midsummer.

To learn more about Duxbury Beach, read the excellent Duxbury Beach Book by Margaret M. Kearney and Kay Foster (2007).  

by Kezia Bacon
April 2012

Kezia Bacon’s articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local non-profit organization devoted to the preservation, restoration, maintenance and conservation of the North and South Rivers and their watershed. For membership information and a copy of their latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168 or visit To browse 15 years of Nature (Human and Otherwise) columns, visit