Special Commission urges maintenance, accountability at Boston Harbor beaches

A commission led by state Sen. Jack Hart has concluded that maintenance and accountability are major concerns at many Boston Harbor beaches, including the Malibu and Tenean beaches in Dorchester. The commission will recommend next month that funding be allocated to complete long-promised capital projects and to establish a more reliable system of caring for the beaches.

The recommendations will be part of a report issued by the Metropolitan Beaches Commission, a legislative initiative co-chaired by Hart and state Rep. Anthony Petrucelli of East Boston.

The commission spent the summer of 2006 visiting beachfront communities along the Boston Harbor from Lynn to Hull. Many of the concerns raised by beachgoers at a series of community meetings stemmed from frustration with the maintenance and management of public beaches, duties that fall under the jurisdiction of the anemic Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR). While a great deal of money has already been invested in capital improvements to water quality ($4.5 billion to date) and in amenities like boardwalks and bathhouses along harbor beaches, significantly less funding and oversight has been allotted to the organization charged with maintaining those beaches.

"We have made an enormous investment in the water of our harbor, but on the beaches the DCR has been unable to take care of the assets that we have the way they want to and the way we need them to," said Bruce Berman, a spokesman for Save the Harbor/Save the Bay, a non-profit group hired to advise the commission.

In Dorchester, residents say that shortfall has resulted in beaches that are too often littered with dog droppings, home to overflowing trashcans, and plagued by the proliferation of an invasive plant called Jimson Weed.

The problem, according to Hart and the preliminary report, is not only light funding that has left the department short on staff and equipment like sand sifters, but also a DCR structure that has put no specific department or staff person in charge of beach operations or maintenance. That represents an inherent flaw, says Hart, in the department that former Governor Mitt Romney created by consolidating the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Department of Environmental Management.

"We think the resources fell way short," said Hart. "As result of that consolidation, even previously, no one is in charge of metro beaches."

Some attendees, especially youth specifically targeted by the commission, said they would like to see an increase in entertainment and programming at city beaches. Conceding that it is unlikely for a cash-strapped DCR to bring magicians and musical performances to public beaches, the commission recommends that revenue from parking and concessions at beaches be re-directed from the state's general fund directly to beach beautification, and that residents of beachfront communities from friends groups or nonprofits to raise funds and create programs for their local beaches.

Roseanne Foley, a Dorchester resident who served on the commission, said that some neighbors had talked of reviving a friends group at Savin Hill beach, and that the Boston Fund and UMass-Boston were also being eyed as possible collaborators.

"We want to get people down to the beach in Dorchester. If there's programming to do that, like kayaking lessons, concerts, that might help a lot. Obviously, the DCR is not going to do that, so we're going to look for partners to help us out," said Foley.

Committing to previously approved capital projects along the beach would include $1.7 million for new bath houses at both Malibu and Tenean Beaches, projects that also stalled because the DCR was too lean to take them on. In addition, the commission has recommended a reinvestment in the DCR that would help the department reach staffing and equipment levels that would allow it to develop and adhere to a more regular schedule of beach maintenance.

Legislation has already been filed recommending the capital improvements and a $2.5 million bump to the DCR's operating budget that would allow for 44 new fulltime positions. The finalized report will be released in February.

"We hope that the report can be released in time for the consideration of the Deval Patrick administration well in advance of the summer season," said Hart.