Orleans, Chatham Strike Cooperative Tone On Beach Agreement

By: Alan Pollock

A camper on North (Nauset) Beach. FILE PHOTO

Meeting together last week, the Chatham Select Board and the Orleans Parks Commissioners approved a one-year extension of the annual agreement for the joint management of Nauset (North) Beach. And while the two boards haven’t yet tackled the divisive issue of dividing beach sticker revenues, they now have a framework for negotiations.

The Orleans board is seeking to raise fees across all the town’s beaches in a bid to make their beach operation financially self-sustaining, but Chatham officials are seeking a larger share of the revenue from nonresident sticker sales. Meeting on April 28, two days before the beach management agreement was set to expire, the boards acknowledged that there wasn’t time to hash out the issue, so they voted to extend the current agreement for a year, giving time for more talks. They also agreed to create a working group to forge a new agreement.

Under the current pact, each town retains proceeds from the sale of off-road vehicle stickers to its own residents. Orleans, which operates the gatehouse at the entrance to the barrier beach, sells all nonresident stickers, sending 25 percent of the proceeds to Chatham. The revenue split was made at a time when erosion had drastically reduced the portion of the beach in Chatham. Chatham officials argue that data collected last summer shows that a large number of ORV users travel to the southern tip of the beach in Chatham, which is now broad and sandy, and the town therefore deserves a larger share of the nonresident permit revenues.

In Orleans, voters at the May 22 annual town meeting will be asked to create an enterprise fund to segregate beach revenues from other town coffers. They will also consider whether to raise nonresident ORV fees by between $170 and $180. The proposed price hikes are designed to help balance the beach budgets and do not account for any potential change in the revenue split. Until voters act on the new fee schedule and enterprise fund, further negotiations about the revenue split are challenging, Orleans Park Commissioners Chairman Mark Mathison said.

“It kind of leaves us in limbo in terms of trying to have an agreement that’s up and running, ratified by the two towns, by May 1,” he said. Mathison suggested extending the current pact for another year, “just to try and deal with realities as they have changed from year to year,” he said. Orleans is seeking a true partnership with Chatham for the cooperative management of the beach and is open to an arrangement that is fiscally fair to both towns, Mathison said.

The goal is to craft a “more long-term and sustainable arrangement so we don’t have to worry about trying to scramble at the last minute, year to year to year,” he said. In the past, talks have been “adversarial in some ways,” he noted, and Orleans is eager to move beyond this to focus on jointly managing the barrier beach, “because it’s so important to both towns.”

Chatham Select Board Chair Shareen Davis said any adversarial approach came from a previous select board. She and board member Jeffrey Dykens have been focused on North Beach issues in Chatham, and she encouraged the Orleans board to send two delegates to join a two-town working group that includes natural resources staff to create the next intermunicipal agreement.

Dykens said he appreciates the spirit of partnership, and urged the two boards to come together in the fall – and to include this in the agreement – to “keep our feet to the fire.”

Orleans Park Commissioner Meff Runyon suggested that an electronic system be used to monitor the vehicles on Nauset Beach, rather than the current paper system. Using a clipboard is “a funny thing to be doing in this day and age when we have license plate recognition and it could all be automated, and the count could be done for 12 months of the year, not four months of the year,” he said.

Such a system would cost money to implement, and if it were installed at the gatehouse in Orleans, it would not show which vehicles traveled to Chatham’s end of the beach.

Orleans Natural Resources Manager Nate Sears said it will take more than proper vehicle counts to reach a fair agreement.

“I think [for] a true partnership, you have to come at this with good faith that our budgets are accurate, what it costs to manage our section of the beach,” he said. “We should have confidence in each town that they’re doing everything they can to minimize the [shorebird protection] closures and provide access to the beach,” Sears said. With both towns working equally to ensure as much ORV access as possible, the partnership would be fairer “and less of a border war,” he said.

While the two towns jointly manage the barrier beach, “in reality the two beaches are very different,” Chatham Health and Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson said. Recently, the shorebird habitat areas in Orleans have been small compared to the number of nest areas in Chatham. A recent press report implied that Chatham officials hadn’t been doing enough to open its portion of the beach quickly. “I would disagree with those statements, and say it’s really a reflection of the fact that the beaches are very different,” he said. Chatham has been working hard to ensure that piping plovers and least terns are properly protected so they don’t need to rebuild nests later in the season, delaying ORV access.

Duncanson said it would be challenging to install a license plate reader at the town line, where there is no gatehouse and no electricity. Without knowing where vehicles are going, “do we just simply manage the beach based on the holistic approach? And then, honestly, come up with some other way to deal with the revenue split?” he asked.

Sears said the beach conditions are so changeable that one town will have higher shorebird expenses than the other in any given year, making a fair revenue split difficult. If the two budgets are combined into one and revenues are divided along the same percentage as costs, it may be fairer than trying to determine “where people are actually going out on the beach,” he said. Getting that information would mean adding staff and equipment. “What I don’t want to do is make the program cost more money,” Sears said.

In Orleans, officials are seeking to make the beach program financially self-sustaining. Chatham continues to subsidize the cost of its beach management with taxpayer money.

Both boards unanimously agreed to sign the one-year extension, with some minor changes in language, and to meet again in the fall to finalize a new agreement. Before then, the working group will begin negotiating the details; Davis and Dykens were expected to represent Chatham, with the Orleans Select Board expected to select two delegates this week.