Managing the Nantasket Beach Reservation: Improving Services and Cutting Costs through Local Control

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Jay Szklut
Planning Director, Town of Hull, Massachusetts

Town of Hull DCR Property Re-Use Study Committee
Christopher Olivieri, Chairman

The Problem

The Nantasket Beach Reservation came into the state’s possession through an act of the legislature in 1899. Nantasket had long been a popular tourist destination, but by the end of the nineteenth century, the area had been overwhelmed by private development and public neglect. The state legislature recognized that acquiring, restoring, and managing the beach would be too much of a burden for the small community of Hull to bear. The January 1893 Report of the Board of Metropolitan Parks Commissioners stated,

To expect the local municipalities—sometimes towns neither rich nor populous—to carry the burden of such a public work as the proper improvement of…Nantasket Beach, is neither right nor practical. It must be borne by the (Metropolitan Parks) district for whose benefit
and enjoyment it will exist.

By 1900, takings plans had been prepared for 21.27 acres of land for the Nantasket Beach Reservation. The site included one mile of beach north from Atlantic Hill, land on both sides of Nantasket Avenue–Hull Shore Drive, and the road from the beach to Nantasket Pier (Wharf Road). The land on the eastern side of Nantasket Avenue adjacent to the beach over time became a huge parking lot.

With the taking of the property, maintaining and updating the Reservation property became the sole responsibility of the state. In its early years as a state-owned property, monetary resources for the care of the Reservation were limited:

The large use of the reservation makes it impossible to dispense with the roadway and old buildings or to make any material improvement to them, although both are deteriorating rapidly, and are decidedly inferior to the standard of public accommodation in other reservations.1

Not recognized in these early reports were the increasing cost of capital-intensive improvements and the constant challenge of day-to-day maintenance of the property. Neither local control nor state ownership alone can provide sufficient resources for a first-class operation of the Nantasket Beach Reservation. Hence a partnership among the state, the town of Hull, and the private sector is proposed

Over time, the state has invested in the Reservation. Many original buildings, including hotels, have been torn down. A bulkhead and additional sanitary buildings were constructed, and the roadway was realigned and repaved. A bathhouse, a comfort station, and a bandstand were erected on this property. On the western side of Nantasket Avenue, in 1901, a new building was constructed to house the police, an emergency room, and a men’s sanitary facility. Several garages were added at a later date. Recently, a children’s playground and a beach volleyball court have been added. Today, however, the state is faced with such needed improvements as seawall repair and replacement, beach nourishment and replenishment, and the more traditional cost items of building repair and maintenance and roadway and parking lot maintenance.

Taking control of the Nantasket Beach Reservation was in part justified by the concern that the local community did not have the resources to improve and manage the beach alone. Unfortunately, state resources are also limited. Lacking any type of control over the resource, the local community is subject to the negative impacts associated with inadequate maintenance and non-local management.

Five general concerns with the current management of the Reservation comprise the negative impacts on the community: underutilization of the Reservation, underutilization of the buildings, poor maintenance, inadequate security, and poor traffic design.

  1. Underutilization of the Reservation

State management of the beach assumes that the Reservation is a daytime attraction, and therefore state presence and oversight occur primarily from 9:00 AM to 4:00 PM. The Reservation is left unsupervised and unmonitored during the late afternoon and evening hours. However, the Reservation attracts many visitors during this period. Four years ago, the state completed the construction of the new bathhouse. Along with the bathhouse, a beach volleyball court and a basketball court were built, both of which were lit for evening use. The basketball court soon became a hangout and attracted “gang”-type groups. Two summers ago, a stabbing and murder occurred at the courts. Subsequently, the court was removed, leaving a concrete pad that remains today.

Until two years ago, when the state agreed to leave the sanitary facilities open beyond 4:00 PM, evening visitors were burdening the local business community to use the only other available facilities. As there is no maintenance of the facilities during the evening, supplies are often inadequate, and the facility itself is less than sanitary. The lack of maintenance and security during the late afternoon and evening hours creates a difficult environment for local businesses.

Active state management and oversight of the Reservation are also limited to the summer, Memorial Day to Labor Day. Here again, the Reservation attracts numerous individuals during both the spring and fall shoulder seasons. Providing security and maintenance during those seasons falls on the local community. Failure to do so would hurt existing business and discourage economic investment in the area.

Beginning recently, state funding for lifeguards at the beach ends the third week in August. Essentially, Labor Day weekend is swim at your own risk, and public safety is compromised.

  1.  Underutilization of Buildings

The Nantasket Beach Reservation contains a cluster of state-owned buildings that are partially occupied or vacant. The first floor of the former railroad depot is occupied by several seasonal shops (ice cream store, etc.). The second floor, the former summer residence of the Commissioner of the now-defunct Metropolitan District Commission, is now vacant.

Other buildings include the former police station and police barracks. These buildings are utilized for storage and some office space for existing staff. There are two garages for storage of maintenance vehicles. One garage has been divided, and the portion facing Nantasket Avenue is leased to an art gallery. Remaining buildings are used for storage of unused equipment and are vacant. The buildings sit on land that divides Nantasket Beach from the pier and bay on the western side of the town.

Along with their vacancy status, the buildings suffer from lack of maintenance with several of the interiors in unoccupiable condition. While the buildings present an opportunity for increased usage of the Reservation, they are currently an eyesore. The buildings create a poor image for the Reservation and discourage private investment in the remainder of the beachfront area.

  1. Poor Maintenance

Maintenance at the Reservation has long been the primary complaint of local residents. The sanitary facilities do not receive regular cleanings during the day and are often left in filthy condition after 4:00 PM. Trash is spilling out onto the beach and parking lot from trash barrels that need to be emptied.

Rather than a preeminent regional recreation resource, Nantasket Beach is associated with an unattractive beach image, discouraging family outings. The negative image of the beach extends to the town, although the beach is owned by the state. Again, the condition of the resource discourages investment and economic interaction.

  1. Inadequate Public Safety

Security at Nantasket Beach is now the responsibility of the state police. The state police also patrol all other state-owned properties in the region. Officers patrol the beach at random times during the day. There is no permanent police presence on the beach despite the fact that there may be several thousand visitors at any given time. The town supplements state police activity by providing one officer on foot patrol during the summer. This cost is borne solely by the town. No other emergency services are provided by the state. Medical emergencies or water-related accidents are handled by local emergency services staff. Again, the costs of these services are borne by the town, and services are unavailable to residents elsewhere when in use at the beach.

  1. Poor Traffic Design

The majority of beach parking (over 900 spaces) is directly adjacent to the beach. Occupying most of the land on the east side of Nantasket Avenue, this asphalt hard top presents an unappealing view to visitors. Additionally, during hot summer days and peak traffic hours, traffic on one of the main roads in and out of town is slowed to a crawl. With the exception of the bandstand and the bathhouse, the parking lot is unbroken and contains no green areas.

Despite this abundance of parking, it is of no benefit to the business community that abuts the Reservation. The state allows no temporary parking or parking for businesses on its property. Additionally, the size and location of the parking encourages automobile use and discourages use of trolleys or other public transportation. Pollution is increased, and traffic congestion becomes the norm, ultimately adversely affecting the aesthetics, economics, and perception of the local community.

Proposed Solution

The Reservation should provide a high-quality recreation experience at a low cost and should be a major economic engine for the local community. The historical record firmly supports that neither local control nor state ownership alone can provide sufficient resources for a first-class operation of the Nantasket Beach Reservation. To maintain the beach properly, a partnership among the state, the town of Hull, and the private sector is proposed.

  1. Local Role

The town of Hull should assume all maintenance and security responsibilities. The town will assume management responsibilities of underutilized buildings. The town will explore leasing these buildings to private developers who would assume all maintenance and upkeep costs associated with the buildings. Private investment in these properties would generate increased tourism and further investment in the area. Additionally, private businesses that locate in the area will have a greater stake in promoting improved maintenance of the beach area.

The town will also assume oversight of parking at the Reservation. Daily parking rates will be unchanged. The town may investigate an evening parking rate or reserving spots for customers of beachfront businesses.

  1. Private Sector Role

The town will seek private investment to improve the condition of the existing buildings. This investment will be in exchange for long-term leases of the property in order to operate a business. The town will provide parking either on site at the current Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) complex or carved out of the existing beach parking. Lease revenues will subsidize the operation of a trolley or other public transportation to transport persons from outlying parking areas to the beach.

  1. Commonwealth Role

The primary mission of the Commonwealth at Nantasket Beach, is to ensure that the mission of the DCR, to provide recreational opportunities to all Massachusetts residents, is met. The Commonwealth will provide operating financing at a reduced cost. The amount of financing will be based on the operating costs less the revenues the town receives from operating the Reservation. The Commonwealth will continue to provide financing for all major capital projects including seawall repair, beach nourishment, etc.

Jointly with the town, the Commonwealth will establish the following plans and policies:

  • To encourage family visitation: promote an arts-based economic development plan incorporating reuse of the underutilized Reservation properties.
  • To encourage public transit service: develop a trolley service that circulates through the Reservation area and to the future Greenbush station and the parking lot at Hewitt’s Cove in Hingham. Explore the possibility of increased ferry/boat service from Boston to the Reservation.
  • To increase greenspace and reduce beachfront parking: better utilize existing back lots, study possibility of parking structure on back lots. Convert portions of existing beachfront parking areas to green areas available for picnicking or strolling.
  • To improve traffic flow, alleviate traffic congestion issues, and promote local economic development: work with town officials to study the possibility of reconfiguring the road and traffic network.

Costs and Benefits

Operating and maintenance expenses at the Reservation are sizable. Annual expenses for the day-to-day maintenance and operations of the stateowned Nantasket Beach Reservation fall in the range of $900,000 to $950,000 (see table 1).

The proposed state/town/private partnership for the Nantasket Beach Reservation would provide a significant benefit to the users of the resource through a general improvement in the recreational experience.

  • Users of the beach would see a heightened level of security with town police patrolling the beach.
  • Users of the beach would see a cleaner beach and comfort station areas as maintenance responsibility of these areas is shifted to the town.
  • Users will see a more varied and heightened level of activity as underutilized properties become occupied by private businesses that will also be responsible for maintenance of these properties.

The town currently supplements state police patrols of the beach by providing, at the town’s expense, one officer on foot patrol throughout the day. Shifting total responsibility of security to the town will allow increased foot and automobile patrols at a reduced cost (see table 2).

Seasonal and winter maintenance of the parking lots and parkways would become the responsibility of the town. The town’s highway garage is located south of the beach, and vehicles from the garage must drive past the beach to reach other areas of the town. Because these vehicles pass the beach several times a day, trash collection could be more frequently scheduled, eliminating a problem that plagues the Reservation daily. Annual maintenance, by the town’s DPW, of the entire Nantasket Beach Reservation including snow removal is estimated to cost $379,000 (see table 3). It is likely that these costs are somewhat higher than those currently incurred by the state. This difference would be covered by the lease or tax payments received by the town from users of the currently underutilized state-owned properties at the Reservation.

Currently, the state budgets a minimal amount toward maintenance of the state-owned buildings on the Reservation. Making these buildings available for commercial uses by private interests transfers the maintenance burden to the private investors. The town currently assesses and taxes businesses operating from state-owned facilities. The dollars received by the town from “new” businesses would go toward offsetting the maintenance costs of the Reservation. This improved maintenance will attract additional users to the Reservation, to the new businesses, and to existing businesses. The five currently underutilized buildings would generate an estimated $70,000 in property tax. This assumes the buildings are not expanded to allow residential or business use on the second floor.

The new management responsibilities and associated costs are summarized in table 4. It is assumed that general supervisor for the Reservation will remain a state position. The five underutilized state-owned buildings are provided with utilities. Once these properties are leased to private concerns, utility costs will be absorbed by those concerns. Maintenance of the properties will also be the responsibility of the private sector and enforced through the lease agreement with the town. Because the town’s highway garage will need to remain open on weekends and evenings, there will be an additional maintenance and utility cost. Increases in utility and building maintenance costs are reflected in table 4.

Table 4 indicates an increase in annual spending on the operations and maintenance of the Reservation. However, there is a net decrease of approximately $86,000 in the annual state spending for the Nantasket Beach Reservation. These changes are due to lower costs for local policing and private sector investment in the area.


The changes proposed in the operation of the Nantasket Beach Reservation, while conceptually simple, must overcome several obstacles. Some obstacles are regulatory, while two major obstacles are financial and political in nature.

  1. Regulatory

One of the obvious reuses for the properties on the Reservation would be to allow a restaurant to utilize the space. This restaurant would be similar to others currently operating along the beach. However, DCR regulations do not allow alcohol on the Reservation. The ability to serve alcoholic beverages may be a prime concern for any future restaurant endeavor.

Another potential use would be as galleries for locally produced art works. Often such galleries also provide lofts and/or living spaces for the artists whose works are on display. While local zoning allows residential uses, there is a concern in town about increasing population density. It is also unknown what the DCR position would be on residential use of its properties.

  1. Financial

A major obstacle to the potential reuse of the Reservation properties is the renovation cost. This proposal assumes that capital costs associated with the Reservation remain the responsibility of the state. Currently, the state is involved in two major capital projects and is winding down a third. The renovation to the Bernie King Pavilion, to be completed this summer, cost $1,026,677. The state is committed to repair of the Nantasket Beach Seawall at a cost of $2,061,247. Also on the horizon is a beach nourishment project. The major capital investments by the state in the Nantasket Beach Reservation over the past few years may preclude additional investments for building renovation.

  1. Political

Bureaucratic inertia is also a potential obstacle to implementation of the proposed program. The current state of affairs has existed for over a century. Despite local complaints about the appearance and maintenance of the Reservation, there has been little change in the operations of the Reservation. Another example of non-responsiveness is evident in this proposal. While DCR provided gross operating figures for the Reservation, repeated requests to the agency to provide clarifications or details of the line items went unanswered. The resulting budget is therefore based on a general characterization of the expenditures and information gathered from other sources on costs associated with the operation of the Reservation.


While the specifics of the Nantasket Beach Reservation may not apply to all state recreation areas, all are located in a local community. Those communities experience all the negative impacts and receive few of the benefits. The general model of a public/ public/private partnership as discussed should be applicable in all these situations.

About the Author

Jay Szklut has been employed by the Town of Hull for eight years, first as Director of Community Development and currently as Planning Director, which combines his previous job with that of Town Planner. As such, he oversees the town’s Office of Community Development, which seeks to improve the quality of life for Hull residents through a range of planning functions.

Previously, Mr. Szklut was the Executive Director of the Brockton Community Corporation, a non-profit Community Development Corporation operating in the city of Brockton. He holds a Ph.D. in anthropology from Indiana University and a master’s in urban and regional planning from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His master’s thesis was on the social and economic impacts of tourism.

This proposal was developed in conjunction with the Town of Hull DCR Property Re-Use Study Committee chaired by Christopher Olivieri.

  1. Metropolitan District Commission application to National Register of Historic Places, quoting 1904 Annual Report of the Metropolitan Parks Commission.
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