Chatham, Orleans Selectmen Avert Beach ORV Closure

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Conservation , Beaches , Orleans news

Sunbathers on North (Nauset) Beach. FILE PHOTO

CHATHAM Though some practical questions remain, selectmen in Orleans and Chatham have taken steps to prevent a possible closure of a popular stretch of Nauset (North) Beach to off-road vehicles this season.

In a joint meeting in Chatham Monday evening, the boards voted unanimously to extend the current intermunicipal agreement for an additional year. Earlier this year, Orleans selectmen sent the Chatham board a draft revision of the agreement that proposes that each town resume patrolling its own stretch of the beach for the first time since 2008. Chatham officials argued that there wasn't enough time before the upcoming beach season for them to purchase a vehicle and hire patrol staff.

Acting in their capacity as parks commissioners, the Orleans selectmen unanimously approved the one-year extension, which will allow Chatham to make provisions for the beach patrol in the FY19 budget. Chatham selectmen also unanimously approved the extension, and the two boards will meet in September to begin planning next year's beach season.

In 2007, a break in the barrier beach opposite Minister's Point left Chatham with only about a half-mile of Nauset Beach connected to the mainland, prompting town officials to discontinue their beach patrol. In exchange for taking over the patrol, Orleans retained a much larger share of revenue from beach permit fees. 

Orleans Parks Commission Chairman Alan McClennen said his board didn't necessarily intend that Chatham purchase a new vehicle and hire staff.

“We just wanted you to protect your land and patrol your portion when necessary,” he said.

Chatham board member Seth Taylor said the orders of conditions imposed by the Chatham Conservation Commission require routine patrols of the beach. Those orders are part of the habitat conservation plan that allow the town to permit limited off-road vehicle access to the beach during closures designed to protect shorebirds.

A one-year extension is necessary, Taylor said, since if the town cannot comply with the shorebird rules, “which includes [a beach] patrol, we're going to have to put a 'closed' sign across our section of the beach this year.” The current agreement expires on April 30. Taylor, who served with Selectman Amanda Love on a subcommittee studying the beach agreement, apologized for Chatham's role in the last-minute problem.

“I'm sorry that we're at this point,” but the towns need to find a solution to prevent a beach closure, he said. While Orleans has a much longer stretch of the barrier beach, its portion is narrower and not favored by off-road vehicle users, who tend to congregate at the end of the beach in Chatham.

Chatham has already made provisions for bird monitors, another requirement of the habitat conservation plan, but did not intend to resume its own beach patrols. Orleans board member Mark Mathison said the two jobs are different, and bird monitors are typically too “genteel” to intervene when there are loud parties or other problems on the beach.

Orleans board member Jon Fuller said he doesn't want to see the dispute with Chatham deteriorate into a battle like the one the town is fighting with Eastham over access on the northern end of the beach.

“It would be a very big shame if we had to close down the Chatham beach section over this issue.”

Orleans Town Administrator John Kelly said the current intermunicipal agreement calls on Chatham to make a “good faith effort” to patrol its part of the beach, while the order of conditions requires regular patrols.

“'Good faith effort' means if you can't do it, you won't be held responsible,” he said. If Orleans is charged with patrolling the area and there is a violation of the order of conditions in Chatham, Orleans may be held legally responsible, he said.

Orleans Natural Resources Director Nathan Sears said he understands Chatham's budgetary constraints, but he worries about patrolling the entire beach with his existing single employee. He said Orleans is now just barely meeting its obligations under the habitat plan and is being asked to take sole responsibility for an additional stretch of beach crowded with off-road vehicles.

Kelly said while Orleans retains upwards of $300,000 annually from out-of-town sticker sales, “we're not even covering our full costs now,” he said. The annual beach budget is subsidized by Orleans taxpayers by around $300,000 annually, Kelly said.

If people don't bring their vehicles on the beach, those sticker revenues will be lost altogether, Taylor noted. “We don't see any of it. You're already 300 grand ahead of us,” he said.

“We're reaching an impasse I don't want to reach. Somehow we have to keep that beach open,” Fuller said.

At McClennen's suggestion, Chatham Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson said he could ask the Chatham Conservation Commission to temporarily ease the order of conditions to lessen the patrol burden. But Duncanson said he doesn't know how such a request would be received.

On a motion by Fuller, the Orleans board unanimously agreed to extend the current agreement for one year.

“We'll see you next September with a substantial plan,” Love said.