Edgartown officials pitched the Dukes County Commission Wednesday to take over management of Norton Point Beach from The Trustees of Reservations, saying the town would focus on transparency and reinvest permit fees in the fragile but popular strip of sand connecting the town and Chappaquiddick.

In Wednesday’s presentation, which drew nearly 50 members of the public, Edgartown parks commissioner Andrew Kelly laid out a detailed plan for the town to utilize and expand its existing resources to take over management of both Norton Point, as well as State Beach, which is owned by the state and managed by the county. Mr. Kelly said that because Norton Point abuts state-owned and town-managed South Beach, a transition of Norton Point management would be relatively seamless.

“We’re confident we can manage the county-owned beaches in Edgartown,” Mr. Kelly said.

The Trustees of Reservations, a statewide conservation nonprofit, have managed Norton Point Beach since 2006, stewarding over the iconic, approximately two-mile stretch of south-facing beachfront.

During the meeting Wednesday, Trustees Islands Director Darci Schofield invoked that longstanding relationship with the county, noting that The Trustees plan to make their own pitch for management at the county’s Dec. 21 meeting.

“We’re here to listen and learn today about what the county is considering for Norton Point,” she said, later adding The Trustees “want to reinstate our continued commitment to this incredible place.”

Frequented by fishermen, over-sand vehicles and recreational beachgoers, Norton Point is also a dynamic coastal habitat, home to rare and protected shore birds and subject to overwash, breaches and constant erosion.

Edgartown’s management pitch comes as a contract for The Trustees to oversee Norton Point ends next March, and follows a fraught summer for The Trustees that has seen organizational turnover and backlash to a proposed beach management plan. The Trustees unveiled, and then quickly scrapped, proposed changes to beach management that would have banned dogs and heavily altered over-sand vehicle routes on beaches across the Island, including Norton Point.

The Trustees have since formed a working group to discuss a future management plan, holding monthly meetings with stakeholders, including ecologists, the town and beach access advocates. 

Mr. Kelly stressed open books and transparency regarding the revenue gained from beach passes as a major piece of the town’s pitch. He promised that any revenue the town earns from the passes would go back into beach conservation and maintenance.

“We want the public to see what’s going on here,” he said. “I think that’s the biggest thing the town can bring.”

While The Trustees have on occasion released seasonal over-sand vehicle sales numbers, county manager Martina Thornton said that The Trustees are not required to provide a specific breakdown of beach pass revenue.

But accounting provided by the county from FY2021 shows that The Trustees management of its Chappaquiddick beaches, including Cape Pogue, Leland Beach and Wasque, has proven lucrative in recent years. The organization sells a variety of different beach access permits for over-sand vehicles, including a $500 all-access pass, as well as a Norton Point-specific pass that is priced at $90 for Island residents and $140 non-Island residents. There are also cheaper early-bird passes available.

In FY2021, the Trustees sold a total of 3,602 over-sand vehicle passes, including 2,165 passes for just Norton Point, bringing in $416,370 in revenue. About $286,000 of that revenue came exclusively from Norton Point stickers.

"I know for fact that not all people who purchased the passes last year actually used it due to the closures and restrictions of access last summer," Ms. Thornton wrote in an email to the Gazette.

Edgartown said in its pitch that it would not immediately raise the price of any over-sand vehicle permits. 

In addition to financial transparency, Edgartown in its pitch promised increased revenue to the county in the form of a schedule of revenue share increases over the coming years.

Mr. Kelly said the town would begin with a 22 per cent revenue share, increasing yearly by one per cent until 2026, when the county would receive 25 per cent of beach revenue. Under Trustees' management, the county receives a 20 per cent revenue share.

In FY2021, Norton Point beach sticker sales brought in $83,274 in revenue for the county.

The third piece of the town’s pitch detailed staffing, as Mr. Kelly praised Edgartown’s existing parks and recreation staff — noting that the town could expand its seasonal, lifeguard and first responder employees to increase public safety presence at the beach.

“That’s sort of a specialty of the parks department,” Mr. Kelly said of the town’s seasonal hiring ability.

Additionally, he said the town would plan to hire an ecologist for wildlife management, a beach director and launch a working group that includes community members and public officials. The town’s conservation department would also advise on various management aspects, including over-sand vehicle use, pedestrian access and dune restoration.

“This would open this up to public management rather than private, and the big thing here is transparency,” Mr. Kelly said.

Mr. Kelly noted, however, that the rare birds found at Norton Point are state and federally protected, stressing that an Edgartown takeover of management would not necessarily alleviate public access closures regarding wildlife.

“Ultimately, those birds — that’s their habitat,” Mr. Kelly said. “Maybe there’s a few things that we can do differently … but it has to be understood that there’s always a chance that area might have to close due to the fact that these birds are protected.”

Lastly, Edgartown’s pitch included a plan to take over management of State Beach — currently owned by the state and managed by the county. Mr. Kelly said the town could provide maintenance, symbolic fencing on dunes and staff to patrol the Edgartown portion of the beach.

One specific provision Mr. Kelly stressed was adding life preservers near Big Bridge as a safety measure following the drowning deaths of Tavaughn and Tavares Bulgin in a bridge jumping accident this summer.

Closing his presentation, Mr. Kelly said an Edgartown takeover of Norton Point Beach could free up The Trustees to focus on other pieces of their operations on Island, including more than 600 acres of Chappaquiddick coastline.

“This might give The Trustees an opportunity to manage the Chappy beaches,” Mr. Kelly said. “This might end up in the long run being a good thing.”

County commissioners at the meeting Wednesday gave little indication whether the Edgartown proposal would be accepted, but Ms. Thornton said the county would ideally make a decision in time for continued management at the conclusion of The Trustees contract March 31.

For Edgartown to take over management, the plan would also have to pass at annual town meeting this spring. At the meeting Wednesday, town administrator James Hagerty said Edgartown already has a placeholder article prepared for the spring.

“It’s a big decision for the county to make,” said commissioner Christine Todd. “There’s a lot for us to take into consideration.”