Bringing Back Norton Point

Trustees of Reservations Assume Management of Barrier Beach; Shorebird Protection Increases but Fishing Access Preserved


Stretching from Metcalf's Hole to Mattakesett Creek, bordered by the calm surface of Katama Bay and the rough waves of the Atlantic Ocean, Norton Point Beach is a spectacular place - offering popular spots for shellfishermen and surfcasters, prime habitat for rare shorebirds, and a vital access route for people going to and from Chappaquiddick.


The sometimes competing interests led to conflicts among the different groups that use the two-and-a-half mile strip of barrier beach, but now just about everyone seems excited that it will be managed by the Trustees of Reservations, the nonprofit conservation organization that has developed a solid reputation for its stewardship of 14 miles of Chappaquiddick beaches.

"They're a very professional group, and have done a great job out here with all their properties," Chappaquiddick Island Association president Terry Forde said this week. "Norton Point used to be open for vandalism, for all-night parties. Now it will be much better controlled, and the wildlife will be better protected. We feel very strongly that this is a good thing."

Trustees regional director Christopher Kennedy last month signed a five-year management agreement for Norton Point with Dukes County, which owns the beach. The county in recent years has closed the beach for nearly the entire summer to protect federally listed piping plovers, but the closures have resulted in less-than-desirable survival rates - with a total of only three plovers fledging in the last four years.

With more staff and experience in active beach management, the Trustees fledged 11 plovers on their Chappaquiddick properties last summer. And the organization has earned high marks for not only protecting the birds, but also assuring appropriate access for the public. Though some closures are absolutely necessary, the Trustees strive to find ways where people and birds can safely share the shore.


"The Trustees' overall mission includes public use and enjoyment," Mr. Kennedy said on a sunny day this week, standing at the Katama entrance to Norton Point. "And I think we do a good job of balancing resource protection with public access."

The recent agreement between the Trustees and the county resolves a discussion that began more than 14 years ago, when talk of the Trustees taking over the beach met with strong opposition from different corners, including the town of Edgartown. But after longtime county beach manager Robert Culbert resigned last year, and public access continued to be a problem, the Martha's Vineyard Surfcasters' Association restarted talks between the county and Trustees, and this time the town weighed in favorably.

Mr. Kennedy admitted that the political opposition in years past was frustrating, and the Trustees were not sure they still wanted to take over responsibility of the beach when they were approached this year. But he noted that the property is particularly important to the organization because it provides access to more than 900 acres of Trustees holdings on Chappaquiddick.

With the addition of Norton Point, the Trustees now manage all of the Vineyard beaches legally accessible to public vehicles - extending from the Katama entrance of Norton Point to the tip of Cape Pogue. Elsewhere on the Island, The Trustees also own the Menemsha Hills Reservation in Chilmark and the Long Point Wildlife Refuge in West Tisbury.

The widespread support for the Trustees management represents a remarkable turn of events over the last decade and a half, illustrating not only the respect that the Trustees have gained, but also an evolution in the public attitude about protecting piping plovers.

The thin strip of Norton Point was at one point the center of debate about public access versus wildlife protection. In 1995 some 200 residents staged a Free the Beach protest on Norton Point, and the following year the county - in an attempt to keep the ocean side of the beach open to vehicles during the plover nesting season - lost an $85,000 lawsuit against the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection.


"This three miles of beach is a political hot potato," said David Belcher, Chappaquiddick property manager for the Trustees. "It's hard to walk that line when you're trying to protect the habitat and provide access. Some people don't get it."

Beach managers are required by law to protect the piping plovers, which are listed as a threatened species under both the federal and state Endangered Species Laws. Also found at Norton Point are least terns, which the state lists as a species of concern, and American oystercatchers, which are not listed but easily recognizable with their bright orange beaks.

Mr. Belcher said he will have to close Norton Point for a short period of time once the plover eggs hatch, because the tiny inch-high chicks forage for food from one side of the barrier beach to the other. But he hopes to keep closures to a minimum, and will reopen certain sections as soon as plover chicks are able to fly. He estimates the closure may begin around mid-June, and he hopes to have the beach reopened by the second week in July.

"The objective is to get the birds in, and get the birds out. But I'm pretty adamant about protecting the birds we have," Mr. Belcher said. "I'm operating under the same guidelines that the county operated. The only difference is I have the manpower to actually manage it."

The Trustees plan to staff the strip with as many as 10 people at any given time, compared with the one or two county officials who would occasionally visit the 250-acre property. On a short visit to the beach this week, one Trustees ranger patrolled the beach in his truck, while two bird monitors kept tabs on the two plover and five oystercatcher nests already established on the property. Meanwhile, two carloads of fishermen cast their lines into the ocean near the Wasque side, while a commercial shellfisherman in waders raked quahaugs in Katama Bay.


Improvements to the beach are also evident - Trustees staff have removed three truckloads of debris and fence posts, which they replaced with clearly marked signs directing the public along proper access routes and away from shorebird nests. The signage will change almost daily, depending on the latest bird sightings and the conditions of the beach.

With significant erosion caused by the harsh Atlantic surf, the ocean side of Norton Point Beach can gain or lose many feet per year. Mr. Belcher described Norton Point as one of the most dynamic shorefronts on the Vineyard in terms of change. He opened an access route along the ocean side of Norton Point earlier this month, but was forced to close it after storms washed away significant amounts of sand.

To keep the public informed about up-to-the-minute closures at Norton Point, the Trustees will offer a 24-hour telephone recording at 696-0731.

Also new this summer, people who want to drive along Norton Point will need a Trustees permit to do so, and the permits will be strictly enforced. According to the agreement signed last month, any excess revenue from permit sales will be split 80-20 between the Trustees and county, but Mr. Kennedy said the large bulk of the money will go back toward managing the beach.

"We hope to run an operation that will pay for itself," he said. The users of this property will pay for it - not the taxpayers - and they will see on the ground their money being put back to use."

The Trustees plan to build a small gate house near the Katama entrance to Norton Point, and will also install a refilling station there for vehicle drivers to put air back in their tires. Mr. Kennedy said the organization hopes to have the gate house and air station up and running by the Fourth of July.


Mr. Belcher, who is in his 18th season with the Trustees on Chappaquiddick and is now in charge of Norton Point, reflected on his new role this week.

"From a professional point of view, a place like this is such a tremendous resource," Mr. Belcher said, driving along the beach in his truck, as he has done tens of thousands of times before. "It will be great to see it being fully utilized - the way it should be."