Two Towns, One Shoreline: Balancing The Books On Beach Revenue

By: Ed Maroney

Topics: Municipal Finance , Nauset Beach , North Beach

Thanks to the accretion of sand from the north, Chatham’s portion of the beach has grown. SPENCER KENNARD PHOTO

ORLEANS England and America have been called “two countries divided by a common language.” One might say Chatham and Orleans are two towns divided by a common beach.

Geography has made Orleans the gatekeeper for Chatham’s North Beach, aka the southern reach of Nauset Beach, and that has led to disagreements over administration and finances. Each town sells resident oversand vehicle stickers to its own citizens, but only Orleans can sell non-resident OSV stickers, reserving 25 percent of those revenues for Chatham.

Now Chatham argues that erosion in Orleans has made Chatham’s section of the strand even more attractive, and cites numbers collected last summer showing that the vast majority of vehicles parked there do not bear Chatham stickers. “We should be probably receiving a little bit more money than we actually are,” Chatham Select Board member Jeffrey Dykens said recently.

With a meeting of the two boards scheduled for April 28, just two days before the current beach management agreement expires, the Orleans Select Board talked things over with Town Administrator John Kelly and Natural Resources Manager Nate Sears last week.

“At this point, Chatham is looking to increase its share of revenue,” Kelly said. “Their resident fees are much lower than Orleans. They’re not interested in increasing those, I understand.”

“The big picture is, we need to manage this beach together,” Sears said. “Orleans residents want to go to Chatham. Chatham residents want to go to Orleans. Non-residents want to go to both locations. We need to continue to collect data.”

Sears had a different take on the aerial photos Chatham had taken on April 3 that showed the waning of Orleans beachfront and the waxing of same in Chatham. “They gave us pictures of the winter beach,” he said. “What I saw in those pictures was a landing pad for shorebirds. We argue that the best time to take this data is after the HCP (Habitat Conservation Program, which includes closures to allow endangered birds to nest and fledge), when we open that beach wide open and the masses are looking to get out there, not just for an occasional drive in the winter.”

The only way to work with Chatham to maximize access to the beach, Sears said, “is if Chatham is out there just like Orleans, managing that beach on a daily basis, letting us know how many (vehicles) they can take. When we have that data, we’ll have a better look at what percentages are accurate for breaking this down… I’d like to see an increased commitment from Chatham to collect data similar to what we’re doing.”

Cooperation is increasing. “We loaned them radios earlier in the season,” Sears said. “They’ve since acquired radios. We’re working on this relationship so we’re managing the beach together rather than drawing a line in the sand.”

“We end up having friction with Chatham every time this comes around, and revenue is the reason for that friction,” said select board member Mark Mathison. “It seems like the basis going forward with any kind of agreement would be understanding what the true costs are and how we can manage those in similar fashion. If we’re charging $120 and Chatham is only charging $60 for a resident (OSV) permit, it doesn’t work. How can we set something that’s a fair price for resident stickers, just as we did for Rock Harbor sharing with Eastham?”

Orleans has prepared a beaches enterprise fund budget for voter approval this May that would cover all costs, including indirect costs but not debt service, for the operation. Several fee increases are proposed to cover those costs without tapping property tax revenue. That increased revenue needs to stay with the town, officials say, and thus the 25 percent of non-Chatham/Orleans-resident OSV sticker revenue that goes to Chatham needs to be capped around the current $75,000.

“Their program costs $150,000 to run,” Sears said of Chatham’s North Beach operation. “They need $90,000 to be flush. We’ve got $75,000 tallied up (to send to Chatham from non-resident OSV revenue). We’re not too far off talking about what it costs to run each of these operations. It’s up to their discretion how they want to make up that difference from their resident income.”

“Let’s recognize this as a transition year,” Select Board Chair Kevin Galligan said. “Let’s be on the same radio channel every day (and report) what numbers you got, they got. Let’s agree we won’t fix this in a year. Let’s start to build on what’s starting to work. We really have come light years ahead in terms of better working relationships.”