Meredith Tolsdorf was going for a walk along the shore of Madaket Harbor in July of 2021 with her granddaughter and friend when she was suddenly approached by Scott White, a man who lives on Little Neck Way who was demanding she get off his property.
"Our boat has moored there for several years so we go to get the dinghy and go to our boat," Tolsdorf, a 79-year old seasonal resident of the island told the Current Tuesday morning. "I had my granddaughter with me and a friend. It was the first time they had been to Nantucket. They asked me if there were any pretty shells here and we started walking down the beach toward (White's) property to pick up scallop shells."
White has developed a reputation over the years for confronting people who walk along the beach in front of his property and/or pass through it. Tolsdorf said she knew this and because of the tide, the boundary lines for his property were only about two and a half feet from the ocean's tides, which prompted her to walk on the sand between the water and the sign.
"He sits up there and waits," she said. "So he came down and confronted me saying to leave the beach. Then he started to lecture me with the laws of Massachusetts. I told him we were just collecting shells but we were going on a boat and would be gone in a minute. He didn’t like that answer, shoved me twice, and then followed me back to the truck and took a picture of my license plate and called the police. I said to the police officer 'are you looking for me' and she took my story. Then she asked me if I was interested in filing charges."
While the incident occurred in July 2021, White was issued a summons to appear in court was just arraigned in Nantucket District Court. On Monday, he pleaded not guilty to charges of assault and battery on a person over 60.
Tolsdorf has been a seasonal resident since 1990. She said she was shocked and stunned that White, 65, shoved her. It prompted her to yell "assault" after each shove. She was not injured.
"This whole incident was so abrupt and was so shocking I wasn’t even thinking about pressing charges until she asked me. I decided to because I know this man. He is dangerous and he needs to be stopped. A lot of people have had incidents with him. They just haven’t come forward. I bet I have at least three quarters of the island behind me on this."
White did not immediately respond to a request for comment made by the Current. He is due back in court for a pretrial hearing in December.
Incidents like the dispute between Tolsdorf and White along Madaket Harbor are at the heart of pending legislation sponsored by Nantucket’s state representatives to address the long-simmering debate over public access to beaches. The bill aims to broaden the definition of what is allowed on privately-owned sections of the shoreline.
State Representative Dylan Ferndandes and State Senator Julian Cyr think they can accomplish this by simply adding one word to the existing state law: “recreation.”
“As someone who grew up on the Cape and Islands, it’s always in the back of my mind how restrictive beach access is here,” Fernandes told the Current when the bill was filed last year. “Growing up and getting yelled at on the beach by obnoxious homeowners and hearing from constituents how disgusted they are by signs being put up on beaches,”
Most of Nantucket’s beaches are privately-owned - as are most along the Massachusetts shoreline - and the public has limited rights to access these areas. The colonial ordinances of the 1600s allowed private ownership of land down to the low tide mark to encourage waterfront development, but also preserved public access for the uses of the shoreline that were common 400 years ago. That means the public retains rights only for “fishing, fowling, and navigation” up to the high tide mark.
By adding “recreation” to that short list of existing allowable uses, Fernandes and Cyr believe they can assure public access for people to simply walk the beach or catch a sunset, and do so without a messy fight over boundaries or land takings.
“The public use these spaces in a different way than we did 400 years ago, but the intent was always public access,” Cyr said. “I think this is an artful way to realize and live up to the intent of the colonial ordnances and continue to ensure public access and do so in a way that doesn’t get involved in the way of taking land.”
The bill would define “recreation” as follows: “the use of land for relaxation, exercise, watersports or other enjoyable pastimes.”
In proposing the bill last year, both Cyr and Fernandes shared their own personal experiences and those of their friends in which they have been yelled at or had police officers called on them for passive recreation at beaches that are privately owned. The bill was referred for further study in May of this year.
While beach access has long been a point of concern on Nantucket, as some private property owners close off areas that had long been assumed to be public or feud with those walking along the beach (as is the case at a certain property in Madaket), the island has substantially greater access to its beaches than other coastal communities in Massachusetts. Of the island’s 78 miles of beach, the public has access to more than half of those areas thanks largely to properties owned by conservation groups (37 miles of beach) along with the town itself (6.5 miles of beach), according to the town’s real estate specialist Ken Beaugrand.