ROCKPORT — Local scuba instructors and neighbors of Back Beach are still clashing about classes being held on the public beach, despite efforts to streamline the permitting process by the town.
Mike Merriman, a scuba instructor for the past 20 years, said he believes members of the Cape Ann scuba community are under the microscope whenever they dive in Rockport.
"Every time I've been at a Rockport beach, either for a class or just by myself, there has been a police officer checking permits," Merriman said. "Not just at Back Beach, but at Front Beach as well. I also heard from other instructors they've been stopped at Old Garden Beach."
Other divers have posted about their frustrations on Facebook.
"I am a resident and had the police called on me and my fiance because we were divers," one post reads. "We were legally parked and had just started to put our gear together when the police rolled up."
According to the town's established regulations for public beaches and parks, "No commercial activity shall be permitted on any beach or park without the expressed written permission of the Board of Selectmen." It also prohibits "organizational groups or large assemblies ... other than family members" from using beaches and parks. Repeat violators may be subject to an $100 fine.
The act of scuba diving itself does not require permitting — only those who are hosting classes or charging fees for their services must obtain a permit. State law states that "No person shall be denied access during daylight hours to commonwealth tidelands across any land available to the public for swimming or recreation which is owned or controlled by the commonwealth or any of its political subdivisions for the purpose of scuba diving or skin diving ..."
Back in 2018, residents who lived near Back Beach began to report unpermitted scuba classes to the police. The Gloucester Daily Times reached out to a member of the Beach Street Neighbors Association for this article, who requested questions be sent by email. The member did not respond.
The town's police chief said his officers responded to those reports.
"I was made aware of citizen concerns related to quality of life issues (parking violations; moving violations; littering; and undressing in public) that allegedly took place before or after commercial scuba diving classes at some of the beaches in Town in the fall of 2018 without a permit issued by the DPW," said police Chief John Horvath in an email.
About a year ago, the town made it easier for dive classes to obtain permits. Previously, the permitting process involved people coming to Town Hall and filling out a form manually. According to Public Works Director Joe Parisi, his department developed a website to streamline the registration process for commercial entities. including divers, to host events on Rockport's public land. As the website launched, the DPW spoke with police officers and local scuba diving groups to "get the word back out there about the permitting process."
Merriman said he has held at least eight classes in the past year, each with a permit. Class sizes typically vary from two to eight divers, depending on the time of year. At all of them, he said he has been stopped by police. Although he said each interaction he's had with officers has been "very cordial," he said he believes divers are being targeted.
"One time, there was a yoga class being held at the beach, Treetop Yoga (a studio in Gloucester)," he recalled. "I asked the officer, 'Are you checking permits for them?' She said, 'We're only checking permits for divers.'"
In an email, Horvath denied the Police Department is engaging "in any efforts to break up unregistered scuba classes."
Merriman said he believes certain locals have been "on a witch hunt against scuba divers." He claims they are "calling the local police numerous times to report infractions, none of which were found valid," and even filming the divers as they change into wet-suits.
"Changing is no different than putting a shirt on over your bathing suit," Merriman said. "One person told police that a woman exposed her breasts, which wasn't true. She was wearing a bikini top."
Although Merriman said the shift to online registration has been helpful, he said there is still work to be done to improve the relationship between divers and the town. Mainly, he wants the rules regarding permits for commercial activities "to be universally applied."
Michael Cronin may be contacted at 978-675-2708, or firstname.lastname@example.org.