The nonprofit that manages the miles of oversand vehicle trails on Chappaquiddick must go through another layer of review, potentially bringing more scrutiny to the controversial pastime of driving trucks and SUVs out to the pristine beaches. 

The Edgartown zoning board of appeals Wednesday voted unanimously to have The Trustees of Reservations re-apply for a special permit from the planning board, as the current permit from more than 30 years ago is missing and town officials have been unable to locate it.

The zoning board’s decision gave the Trustees a month to reapply, and if the nonprofit is unable to, it would be forced to cease operations altogether on Cape Pogue, zoning board members said Wednesday.

“They’ve been operating for many years without a permit,” said board member Robin Bray. “It’s time to correct this.”

The vote creates a new wrinkle in the oversand vehicle argument that has been bandied about for several years, resulting in a mounting pile of appeals, lawsuits and legal filings. 

The practice of driving vehicles on the sandy trails has been controversial. — Ray Ewing

The special permit issue kicked off last year, when Cape Pogue homeowner Victor Colantonio wrote to the town’s building inspector and claimed that the Trustees were in violation of the town’s zoning. The Trustees act of selling oversand vehicle permits, he claimed, broke regulations that only allow residential activity in areas of Cape Pogue. 

Mr. Colantonio, who is also entangled in an ongoing court case against the Trustees over oversand vehicles in Land Court, petitioned inspector Reade Milne in February 2024, asking her to find the Trustees in violation of zoning laws. He claimed the Trustees’ operations on Chappaquiddick have far outgrown what was initially allowed. 

The initial application in 1990 did not seek tours, walk-on beachgoer fees, kayak rentals and allowances for thousands of oversand vehicles, Mr. Colantonio argued.

“Every day we wait is a violation of zoning regulations,” he wrote in a letter to Ms. Milne. “Without a copy of the special permit of any evidence any such permit ever issued or existed, [the Trustees’] activities are in violation of Edgartown zoning laws.” 

In March, Ms. Milne declined to take action, saying the permitting issue had already been referred to the planning board. She reasoned that because there was no 1990 permit to read, she could not determine if the Trustees were exceeding its initial allowance. 

Mr. Colantonio appealed Ms. Milne’s decision to the zoning board of appeals, prompting the board to take the matter up over two meetings. 

As most hearings about oversand vehicle access have, Wednesday’s meeting drew impassioned public comment and more than 60 people were in attendance. Fishermen and beachgoers called on the zoning board to preserve access and let the building inspector’s decision to stand, while Mr. Colantonio and his supporters asked the zoning board to crack down on the Trustees and force the organization to apply for a permit from the town. 

The Trustees’ attorney Dylan Sanders said a cease and desist would amount to shutting down the prized beaches as the high season approaches. He told the board that the Trustees is in full compliance with the town’s zoning and no board has told the nonprofit that it needs further authority for oversand vehicles on Cape Pogue. 

“What [Mr. Colantonio] means is an order closing the beaches to the public, and doing so at the height of the summer season, in advance of the fishing derby,” Mr. Sanders said. “But he has not demonstrated that the Trustees, who manage most of the beaches in question, are in violation of any specific zoning bylaw.” 

There are minutes that state the now-missing special permit required annual planning board review of the Trustees activities, but there’s no evidence that those annual check-ups ever took place.

Mr. Sanders said it’s unclear why those reviews stopped, but the Trustees is willing to meet annually with the planning board and proposed that the meeting take place jointly with the conservation commission and a Cape Pogue advisory board. 

Fishermen continue to push for the preservation of vehicle access on Chappaquiddick. — Ray Ewing

After more than 90 minutes of discussion, the zoning board said Ms. Milne made the right decision to refer the issue to the planning board. But the zoning board determined that the Trustees have to re-apply for a special permit, something the planning board had not yet required. 

Ms. Bray said the town has bylaws in place that require a special permit for trails on parts of Cape Pogue, and the planning board needs to enforce them. 

“They have authority here to act on an application, so the Trustees simply need to lay out what their activities are and submit that to the planning board for their considerations,” she said. “And they can impose whatever conditions they feel are necessary on those activities.” 

Mr. Colantonio had asked for a cease and desist be issued against the Trustees, but the zoning board opted not to take that route. But if a complete application is not filed in 30 days, the nonprofit will have to halt operations on Cape Pogue. 

Some beachgoers asked if that meant access to the beach was going to be cut off. The question even came to the mind of zoning board member Thomas Pierce.

“You’re mixing up two things,” zoning board chair Martin (Skip) Tomassian said. “You’re voting to support or not support the building inspector, who says the Trustees don’t have a permit. It has nothing to do with access to the beach....That’s a red herring that’s been thrown in here.”  

When someone in the Zoom chat said that the decision was shutting down the beaches, Mr. Tomassian doubled down. 

“We’re not,” he said. “Jesus, take the wax out of your ears.” 

A Trustees spokesperson after the meeting said the organization is reviewing the decision and declined further comment. 

The planning board had been reviewing the missing permit and likely would have come to the conclusion that the Trustees needed to file for a new one, planning board chair Lucy Morrison said Friday.

“Nobody has ever been able to find a decision,” Ms. Morrison said. “It’s based on minutes from the ‘90s.” 

Vehicles driving on the trails of Chappaquiddick has been contentious for several years now. In  May, the town conservation commission voted to limit Cape Pogue to 30 oversand vehicles and Wasque-Leland to 200 vehicles. Some Chappy residents called for fewer vehicles on the Island for environmental reasons, while many beachgoers claim there’s attempts to turn the sandy spit into a private playground. 

There are now at least two lawsuit — one against the Trustees by Mr. Colantonio and one against the Edgartown conservation commission filed by the Trustees in Dukes County Superior Court this week. The Trustees and a citizen’s group of Chappaquiddick residents are also both challenging the conservation commission’s decision on vehicle limits to the state Department of Environmental Protection.