CHATHAM — Under the current pact between the two towns, Orleans retains 75 percent of the proceeds of nonresident sticker sales for Nauset (North) Beach, with Chatham getting the remaining 25. The split acknowledged that Chatham once had only a tiny portion of the barrier beach within its town lines, and that off-road vehicles must travel through Orleans to reach it. But the Chatham select board says the time is now ripe to revisit that deal.
The select boards of both towns are expected to meet jointly later this month to hash out another joint beach management agreement, replacing the current version that expires on April 30.
For years, Chatham has contended that its portion of the beach – the southernmost tip – is the most desirable destination for off-road vehicle users and beach campers. For that reason, the town made a concerted effort to document the number of vehicles that visited the tip of the beach last year. Chatham Health and Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson shared the findings with the select board last week, along with a series of aerial photos that show how the topography of the beach has changed.
“There’s been significant erosion along the Orleans section, and there is now a lot of scarping going on along the dune,” Duncanson said. While the beach remains wide and flat in the area of Pochet, the front beach in other places is now extremely narrow at high tide, barely leaving room for vehicles to pass between the water and the eroding dune.
In several places, the steady erosion of the beach face now threatens the inside road that runs the length of the barrier beach.
“It won’t take but a couple of major storms to really put that road in jeopardy,” he said.
Under the current intermunicipal agreement, Chatham sells beach stickers to its own residents, and Orleans sells stickers to its residents and all nonresidents. Each town retains the proceeds of its own resident sticker sales, and Orleans retains 75 percent of the nonresident sales.
Last year, Chatham raised $33,000 through resident sticker sales, and its share of nonresident sales was $74,427.50. The total fee revenue was about $108,000, less than the $150,000 the town budgets for managing the beach each year.
“We don’t necessarily spend all that in a year,” Duncanson said.
The recent aerial photos show that the portion of the beach south of the town line has grown, making Chatham’s portion a broad, sandy expanse that curls into Pleasant Bay. The southernmost tip, though its location changes based on the evolution of the barrier beach, has always been the most popular area for off-road vehicle users. But Chatham has so far been unable to document that phenomenon.
To begin to make up for that lack of data, Chatham’s beach patrol periodically spot-checked vehicles on the town’s portion of the beach last year. Officials checked vehicles in August, September and October, with 24 of the surveys taking place during the day and another 26 on weekend evenings.
During those daytime, surveys, 16 percent of the 2,434 vehicles on the Chatham portion of the beach had Chatham resident stickers. Of the remainder, 24 percent were from Orleans, 13 percent were campers from one category or another, and 46 percent were nonresidents. At night, 1,264 vehicles were logged, 64 percent of which were day-trippers, with beach campers making up the remainder.
Select Board Chair Shareen Davis, who serves with board member Jeffrey Dykens on the North Beach subcommittee, asked how many vehicles are allowed on the beach at peak capacity. Generally the gatehouse allows a maximum of about 250 vehicles, “but this has been open to some interpretation,” Duncanson said.
“Orleans has indicated to us on some occasions that the beach has maxed out, when quite honestly we still believe there is room for more in the Chatham portion,” he said.
Davis said the figures are telling.
“About 70 percent of the Chatham section of the beach aren’t Chatham people,” she said. The tip of the beach continues to be the most desirable place for people to recreate, Davis noted.
“You go down to the end of the beach, it’s God’s country,” she said. “It’s the best view in the world, it’s just a really gorgeous place and you can spread out.” Particularly on parts of the beach in Orleans, vehicles are sometimes parked side by side like a parking lot.
“The Orleans section just doesn’t have the ability to support the number of people that are getting permitted to get on the beach,” Davis added. Chatham can make a strong case that it deserves more than 25 percent of the nonresident sticker sales, she said.
“Our resources are out there in Chatham, taking care of the Chatham section, as per the agreement. And so we should be probably receiving a little bit more money than we actually are,” Davis said. Dykens agreed.
“Those photographs were just stunning,” he said. “Mother Nature has treated Chatham well with the extension of the beach to the southward,” he said. The stretch in Orleans between Pochet and the town line has narrowed dramatically, Dykens said.
“It’s stunning. There will come a point – I hate to say it – that it may be very difficult to get to Chatham’s point,” he said.
Last week, Orleans officials held a public hearing to discuss raising fees at all the town’s beaches, with the goal of making their overall beach program financially self-sustaining. Some of the proposed fee increases in Orleans are “fairly significant,” Duncanson noted. Chatham raised its resident beach fees in 2018 to $60 to better align them with the Orleans fees, but Orleans has proposed raising their yearly off-road vehicle resident fees to $120.
Duncanson said that Orleans officials have expressed concern about maintaining the 75-25 percent split in light of the proposed fee increase, “as it would result in a significant increase to Chatham. Therefore, suggesting a ‘flat rate’ to Chatham based on prior amounts may be more appropriate,” he wrote in a memo to the board.
Select Board member Cory Metters said he’s looking forward to meeting with his Orleans counterparts.
“I think we can have an open dialogue with Orleans, and hopefully make this work for the upcoming season,” he said. “The numbers definitely help our case.”