Fans of beach driving hit a roadblock
DENNIS, Mass. (AP) — Dennis native Sean Fitzpatrick has been riding or driving out on the town’s off-road vehicle beaches for as long as he can remember.
“My parents have been bringing me out there since I was born,” Fitzpatrick said of the ORV trails at Crowes Pasture Beach and Chapin Memorial Beach. “I’ve been driving out pretty much since I got my license. It’s a really different beach experience that’s unique to Cape Cod.”
But if state efforts to enforce coastal management guidelines succeed, vehicles at Crowes Pasture could soon be banned from driving or parking on exposed tidal flats, which have been popular with ORV drivers for decades.
The town of Dennis filed a notice of intent with the Department of Environmental Protection last fall for authorizing a new ORV management plan at Crowes Pasture Beach, according to a statement from department spokesman Edmund Coletta. While the town’s plan includes a provision that would continue to allow ORVs to drive and park on tidal flats if no endangered piping plover chicks are present, a DEP response to the town dated Dec. 21, 2017, stated that ORV access to tidal flats should not be allowed under any conditions.
“Use of the tidal flats for vehicle travel or parking should not be allowed pursuant to the Barrier Beach Guidelines,” the response says. “Parking should only be permitted in the oversand vehicle corridors. Corridors should be located to avoid tidal flats.”
The town’s existing ORV management plan, which allows vehicles to access tidal flats, was authorized in the early 1990s, predating 1994 state guidelines written to restrict vehicles from driving or parking on flats, according to Coletta’s statement, citing issues of erosion, pollution and negative impacts to wildlife as reasons for the restriction.
As the town moves forward with permitting a new plan, the DEP wants it to come into compliance.
“MassDEP is supporting this restriction because it is consistent with the (coastal zone management) guidelines and because parking vehicles on tidal flats would not meet the performance standards of the state Wetlands Protection Act,” the DEP statement says.
Dennis Natural Resources Director Karen Johnson said the move to replace its outdated permit for managing ORVs at Crowes came from within her department and was not mandated by the DEP.
“It’s something the department has talked about for quite a while,” she said of the re-permitting effort, adding that voters at a 2017 town meeting approved the funds to make it happen.
Provisions in the new plan would allow more flexibility to determine where vehicles can park based on changing beach conditions, Johnson said. It would also allow an escort vehicle to take commercial aquaculture grant holders to their grant areas on the flats when the beach is otherwise closed to protect piping plovers.
The DEP has not made a decision about whether to allow aquaculture grant holders access to the flats, according to the agency’s statement.
Crowes Pasture Beach currently has 31 commercial aquaculture grants, according to the natural resources department.
Additional changes proposed in the plan include cutting the maximum number of ORVs allowed on the beach at any given time from 125 to 85 due to increasing beach erosion.
The Dennis Conservation Commission is slated to vote on whether to approve a permit for the plan at its March 1 meeting. Although the commission has authority to grant the permit, the DEP has the authority appeal it, Dennis Conservation Agent Erin Burnham said.
Coletta declined to comment on whether the DEP would pursue an appeal if the commission issues the permit, but said it has appealed local orders in the past.
Burnham said the town is still waiting to hear from the Massachusetts Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program, which also has say in authorizing the plan.
“I don’t believe we have our final, final comments from them,” she said. “But they also don’t look favorably on vehicles driving on the flats.”
Burnham said that, although it is possible, she does not foresee the town making changes to bring the proposed plan in line with DEP guidelines before the commission’s vote.
“It will be up to the Conservation Commission to look at what’s proposed and what they believe is allowable,” she said.
The plan states that the town earns an average of $155,000 annually from the sale of ORV permits, but for beachgoers like Fitzpatrick, who administers the Facebook page CP ORV, losing the ability to drive and park on tidal flats could be a deal-breaker when it comes to purchasing one.
“There are so many people that want to go out on the flats — that’s literally the reason why they go,” Fitzpatrick said. “So you’re taking away the sole reason.”
According to the town’s website, the cost of an annual ORV permit for 2018 has jumped to $150 for Dennis residents and $300 for non-residents, up from $100 and $200 the previous year. The town sold 960 ORV permits in 2017, a natural resources department employee said.
“If you’re not offering the experience that’s relative to that price, it’s not fair,” Fitzpatrick said.
Information from: Cape Cod (Mass.) Times, http://www.capecodtimes.com