Saturday, March 3, 2012

An Open Letter To Chincoteague's Mayor

This is a copy of the letter written by Luther J. Carter that appeared in last week's Eastern Shore News and this week's Chincoteague Beacon:

"Dear Mayor Jack Tarr,
In the months ahead you will have the opportunity as well as the responsibility to lead the town to a wise and amicable settlement of its conflict with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over beach access for visitors to the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on Assateague Island.
If it turns out that as a popular town official you will be running unopposed for re-election May 1, this will in itself be to your advantage as peacemaker.
The first thing I suggest is to tone down the rhetoric, beginning with your own.
At the congressional hearing Feb. 15, you were saying, "I feel we are being railroaded into less or no parking at the beach, and forced to ride a trolley system in the future."
That's strong language for which you would be hard put to produce supporting evidence. Your colleague at the hearing, Accomack Supervisor Wanda Thornton went even further, mind you, in suggesting that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and its refuge manager Louis Hinds cannot be trusted.
This is what she said: "Their real plan is to develop a transit parking lot (in town, on the Maddox campground), then claim they cannot build the new beach parking lot because of environmental and budget concerns. That leaves the town right where the refuge manager wanted to go all along: Parking outside of the refuge and the permanent loss of beach parking."
Yet on its face, the F&WS proposal to move parking from the narrow, erosion-prone strip of beach that lies between the ocean and Tom's Cove to a new site a mile and a half to the north seems entirely reasonable, since parking there will be far less exposed to storm washouts.
Repeated often enough, unfounded allegations of the kind heard at the recent hearing could make it politically impossible for you and other town officials to face up to the cold realities with respect to the troubled prospects for parking at Tom's Cove.
Yet it's a matter of some urgency that you get behind plans to move parking to the more stable site farther up the beach, and to help marshal congressional support for that move.
At the new site, beach parking could serve as a far more dependable mainstay of local tourism than is now true of the parking at the dynamic, washout-prone site at Tom's Cove.
As we all know, Mr. Mayor, the nor'easter of late November 2009 and Hurricane Irene of last August, both coming in one 22-month period, knocked out most of the Tom's Cove parking for a considerable time.
In fact, National Park Service crews are even now hustling to restore some 700 parking spaces (over 70 percent of the lot's 961 spaces) lost from Hurricane Irene. (For the uninitiated, note that the National Park Service operates the public beach subject to a memorandum of understanding with the F&WS, which owns all of Assateague south of the Maryland-Virginia line.)
Roughly 5,000 cubic yards of clay have been dug up from the washed over site and deposited in huge piles extending a half mile down the beach.
To rebuild the parking lot still another 5,000 cubic yards of clay must be trucked to the site, in some 200 full loads. Restoring the lot is a big job, taking months to complete, and if the lot were washed out by a storm in late spring or early summer, parking might be lost for the July Pony Penning and the remainder of the prime season.
Furthermore, re-establishing parking in the future by the expedient of moving the lot farther back from the ocean will be possible only if the next storm to wash out the lot brings in enough sand to cover over the Tom's Cove salt marsh and provide a legally accessible base for the new parking.
Storms and beach erosion occurring over the 44 years between 1966 and 2010 left two former parking lots under water as the shoreline moved 800 feet farther inland, as shown by the line on the National Park Service's 1966 aerial photo.
Mayor Tarr, as you have emphasized all along, Chincoteague has a huge economic stake in the quality and direction of refuge operations, especially with respect to the impact on tourism.
Fortunately, in doing more for tourism the F&WS actually might find its primary mission of wildlife protection to be well served. Indeed, with 1.4 million people (mostly beachgoers) coming to the refuge every year, there's an opportunity to engage far more of these visitors in activities that point up what the refuge is doing to benefit wildlife and how they can aid in that effort.
For instance, instead of closing the Tom's Cove beach and visitor center once the new beach to the north is in operation, the refuge could have them remain open as all season attractions for visitors coming by foot, bicycle, kayak, water taxi, or shuttle.
The visitors center, taken over from the National Park Service and recreated as a F&WS facility, could emphasize the theme that successful shorebird nesting is by no means incompatible with a limited and carefully directed human presence.
Refuge Manager Louis Hinds himself has noted that some of the most productive nesting by the endangered piping plover has been occurring along the back side of the half mile of so of beach just north of the present parking lot --this despite the fact that visitors are allowed to walk this stretch of beach in all seasons if they keep fairly near the water's edge.
There could be abundant opportunity to instruct visitors in the careful observation and protection of wildlife.
Mayor, if you can push and persuade the F&WS to keep the Tom's Cove beach and visitors center open at all seasons after the new beach is established to the north, Chincoteague will then have two excellent public beaches, each with its own distinctive charms and advantages.
My guess is that many visitors would revel in the Tom's Cove beach with no cars, fewer people, and its magnificent sunsets.
Another thing I urge is that you speak out strongly in favor of creating behind the Bateman educational center an array of ponds and boardwalks extending all the way out to Black Duck Pool.
Bear in mind that the Bateman Center, for which some $12 million has been appropriated over the years, would not exist but for effective lobbying by the Chincoteague citizenry and town government. It's now time for a new round of improvements at this important facility, which fits in perfectly with the birdwatching that draws substantial numbers of people to Chincoteague at times when the visitors of summer are long gone.
Mayor, I've left until last the touchy matter of the F&WS beginning its acquisition of the Maddox Family Campground as a base where visitors could leave their cars and catch a shuttle bus for the beach or other points of interest on the refuge, most notably the historic Assateague Lighthouse, the Bateman Center, and, I most devoutly hope, a new all-season public beach at Tom's Cove.
Your surprise at the recent announcement that the first $1.5 million federal grant had become available for purchase of campground property suggests, right enough, that the F&WS could have done better in keeping the town informed.
But the refuge's Comprehensive Conservation Planning Update of last August plainly states, in connection with the new beach, that it would "pursue alternative Chincoteague Island parking opportunities and institute a shuttle service ... to supplement the beach parking."
Also, the Maddox Family Campground appears on an accompanying map as one of several highlighted features. So talk of deliberate lies and deceptions is grievously misplaced.
Nonetheless, given the widespread confusion and misunderstanding as to F&WS intentions, it will no doubt be wise to insist that the agency acquire no land from the Maddox family apart from an overall plan for a shuttle service worked out jointly with the town.
But Mayor, you and the council had best be prompt in getting such planning under way lest the town find itself unprepared for the next storm emergency.
The shuttle service would supplement, not replace parking, and if beach parking is knocked out at peak season these buses will be absolutely essential.
Mayor Tarr, if you do succeed in leading the town to a sensible and friendly settlement of the beach-access issue you will have done yourself enormous credit. I wish you good luck!"

** I find myself a convert to Mr. Carter's point of view...  **

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