Driveway

South Beach, Chatham, Mass.There’s a conversation that continues to come back to me, nine years after it took place in the downstairs meeting room of the Chatham Town Offices.

The topic up for discussion was vehicle passage on North Beach. At the time, the beach was, of course, still a peninsula. The thread of barrier beach attached to Orleans by which the few lucky camp owners and ORV drivers would access the Chatham section had problems – exactly where the vehicles should actually pass through here. Some camp owners felt the traffic was eroding dune protecting their homes. Federal and local officials felt otherwise.

As a Selectman, I took a fairly traditional view. No, a primitive view, really – screw the cars, and take a boat or walk. But, having grown up on the Nantucket Sound side of town, I never developed an appreciation or familiarity with life out on North Beach. I did understand the need for camp owners to get quickly out to their properties when weather conditions made boat access impossible.

I think about this Selectmen’s meeting now, especially in light of the newest chapter in the South Beach saga. Namely, that two property owners south of the Lighthouse are now claiming property rights out to Chatham Harbor, and thereby ownership of swathes of Lighthouse Beach. In interrupting the town’s contiguous rights from Lighthouse Beach out to South Beach, this claim would effectively be a roadblock in the middle of what has been viewed for 18 years as one public property.

One the one hand, this certainly solves the whole safe-or-not to swim issue here. Or greatly diminishes it. The town won’t have to agonize over how much to pay for patrols this summer for a beach no one can get to.

On the other, it raises almost quite literally a roadblock to any question of vehicular access to South Beach. Recall that in the bitterly cold winters of the past few years, commercial shellfishermen, frozen out of all the harbors, have been granted permission to drive down the beach to access the waters nearby.

That suggestion, however, triggered my memory of that Selectmen’s meeting. Camp owner Russell Broad was proposing an alternative route for summer traffic on North Beach. Effectively, his front yard was right up against the backside of the beach, right on Chatham Harbor. His grandchildren would play in the close-by intertidal zone, but trucks would come whizzing down on the wet sand at high speeds. In effect, at low tide, there was a very broad highway in front of his camp. As the tide came up, the road narrowed bringing the speeders closer and closer to his house, and closer and closer to his family.

Yet, this was his property. Why should he have to put up with this? Would anyone put up with people driving through their yard just because it was the easiest route?

Town Counsel Bruce Gilmore, present at the meeting, pointed out the Massachusetts Colonial Ordinance that passage through the intertidal zone was open to the public for purposes of fishing, fowling and navigation. Therefore, he continued, all one of those trucks and SUV’s would need to do was put a fishing rod or clam rake in the back, and voila! The intent of the law is fulfilled.

If that were the case, I pointed out, how long would the Town stand aside if the same thing happened down along the shores of the Mill Pond? It would be as equally true for Hardings Beach, too (not well known, but from the entrance of Hardings to the immediate shoreline is actually a town landing). Would fishermen be able to drive anywhere along the shore in Chatham as long as they had a defensible excuse like a rod,, rake or shotgun? But while this was a valid question, it was not one that anyone cared to entertain at the time.

Perhaps now is the time to revisit it.

There is a town landing that runs from Morris Island Road, south along the Chatham Beach and Tennis Club, to the harbor.

And as for where the intertidal zone is on Lighthouse Beach and South Beach, well, having filmed down there during the hurricanes of this summer and documented the storm surge, it’s pretty clear this is most of the area the public uses anyway.

That leaves very little stable ground upon which to erect a roadblock.

 Read this and Andy's other columns online at The Cape Cod Chronicle.

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