ORLEANS — Barring any tricks from Mother Nature, off-road vehicles will have access to North (Nauset) Beach this summer under a joint management agreement between Chatham and Orleans.
After months of stalemate, and with less than three weeks remaining until the current agreement expires, Chatham and Orleans selectmen approved a one-year beach management agreement last Wednesday.
With Chatham selectmen in attendance, Orleans selectmen – acting as the town’s park commissioners – voted on April 11 to approve the pact. The agreement requires Chatham to resume patrolling its portion of the barrier beach, and stipulates that Orleans will retain 75 percent of the permit revenue from out-of-town users, with Chatham keeping 25 percent.
Historically, the towns jointly managed the barrier beach, which once stretched south more than eight miles from the Nauset Beach parking lot in Orleans to an area opposite Monomoy Island in Chatham. Breaks in the barrier beach, most notably the 2007 breach opposite Minister’s Point, drastically shortened Chatham’s portion accessible to off-road vehicles. Previous versions of the beach agreement acknowledged this, with Orleans taking over beach patrols and some of the responsibility for shorebird management. While both towns retain the funds from beach stickers sold to their own residents and property owners, revenue from stickers sold to non-residents of those towns went entirely to Orleans, acknowledging that town’s lead role in managing the beach.
Chatham’s portion of the beach has grown somewhat since 2007, and while the area remains small – less than a mile-and-a-half – it is a popular destination for off-road vehicle users. Last year, Orleans officials requested that Chatham resume its own patrols. Saying there was no budget money available for them to do so, Chatham asked Orleans to continue doing patrols last summer, and they did so. This year, Chatham has money in the budget to resume patrols.
Orleans Park Commission Chairman Alan McClennen, Jr., said Orleans sent Chatham an amended beach agreement in January, “which has been sitting there until late March when we had an exchange of letters and correspondence.” Chatham selectmen argued that they were waiting for Orleans to appoint members to a working group to fine-tune the agreement.
“One of the reasons we shied away from a subcommittee is we wanted to make this very public. And tonight it’s very public,” McClennen said.
Chatham board Chairman Cory Metters replied that Chatham’s subcommittee has met publicly, has advertised all of its meetings and has complied with the Open Meeting Law.
“Did you notify us?” McClennen asked.
“You guys didn’t have a committee,” Metters countered.
The most controversial part of the intermunicipal agreement, the renegotiation of the revenue sharing for out-of-town sticker sales, prompted less debate than some expected. Sticker fees defray the towns’ beach management expenses, but much of the cost is still borne by taxpayers, officials pointed out. McClennen said the Nauset Beach South operation last year operated at a deficit of $135,000, and ceding 25 percent of the out-of-town sticker fees to Chatham could increase that deficit by around $36,605. The actual beach revenues each year vary depending on sticker sales, which are driven by weather, beach conditions and the economy.
Even with the new revenue split, Chatham’s taxpayers will be subsidizing its beach operation by about $75,000.
Orleans Selectman Mark Mathison said both towns will benefit by having the beach open to off-road vehicles. While Chatham’s portion of the beach is attractive to ORV users, those vehicles have to travel Orleans’ roads “before you get to that golden mile,” he said. He said he supports the new revenue split this year, but said if the towns continue to collaborate on the beach, Chatham should consider sharing the costs of the staff at the ORV gate. The pact needs to be fair, “without one town taking a bath and the other town benefiting from it, in either direction,” Mathison said.
Orleans board member Mefford Runyon said he also supports the agreement, “but I have to say that in the long run, I think the ORV portion of this should be covered by stickers and not any general tax revenue.” Off-road vehicle users represent “a very specific user group that should be paying for its use of the beach,” he said.
Colleague David Currier urged his colleagues to support the idea of a working group with Chatham, “that I’ve been begging for for a year now.” But Orleans board member Jon Fuller disagreed.
“I’m not a big proponent of working groups,” he said. Selectmen have the authority over intermunicipal agreements and should be the ones to negotiate them, he said. Fuller said that once again, talks are taking place at “the last minute” before the beach agreement expires. While he said he wouldn’t support the revised beach agreement, he said he also would not vote against it. Ultimately, the Orleans board voted 4-0 in favor of the agreement, with Fuller abstaining.
Prior to the discussion, the Orleans board heard comments from Patrick Paquette, president of the Massachusetts Beach Buggy Association, who said his group’s members would not tolerate a beach closure driven by “political gamesmanship.” He pledged to exhaust his organization’s legal coffers to challenge such beach closures.
“This isn’t an Orleans thing or a Chatham thing. This is a Cape Cod thing,” Paquette said. “Our identity and culture are at threat.”
The revised beach agreement, which will be in force for one year, was expected to be signed shortly after the meeting.