Town offers ‘one-time only, 100 percent refund’ to ORV beach sticker fees by June 28

In response to beach sticker holders angered by the closure of the off road vehicle area of Duxbury Beach due to abundant breeding pairs of piping plovers, town officials are offering a full refund if stickers are turned into town hall before the month’s end.

The refund applies to over-sand permits only purchased on or before June 3 and stickers must be returned to the town hall in person before June 28.

On Monday, Duxbury selectmen held a public meeting at the senior center about the temporary beach closures, which restrict all vehicle access from the beach and curtail pedestrian access to a large portion of the beach – in both the public and private areas possibly until July 15. The closures are a result of a record number of piping plovers nesting along most of the bar- rier beach. The piping plover is a shorebird that is classified by both the state and federal government as a threatened species, therefore it cannot be disturbed during the nesting, hatching and fledging of its chicks. Closing the beach to cars and people is designed to help the chicks reach the age at which they can fly away from danger — which takes at least a month.

Areas of Duxbury Beach are closed annually because of piping plover nesting grounds, but this year the birds were more abundant and nested near the three off road vehicle crossovers and the entrance to the public portion of Duxbury Beach at Duxbury Beach Park. The location of these nests is what has forced the vehicle access restrictions. The larger than normal bird population is blamed on excellent habitat resulting from the severe winter storms, which changed the landscape of the beach.

Town Manager Rene Read opened the meeting by addressing a letter he received on June 5 from Bruce Fenton of Lyman Street that contained ten questions on topics such as who was responsible for the decision to close the beach, what information about the plovers and the beach the town officials knew and when they knew it, when the decision was made to close the beach, what efforts the town made to investigate “the legitimacy” of the claim that the beach should be closed, and if there were any remedies for people who felt they were sold an “ineffective sticker.”

Fenton’s letter also accused the town of fraud, stating the town knew the beach was going to be closed but sold stickers to the public and “fraudulently neglected to inform purchasers of this.”

Read drafted a June 10 letter in response to Fenton’s questions, which he read at the meeting. Read said under the Duxbury Beach Management and Habitat Conservation Plan, the Duxbury Harbormaster/Coastal Natural Resources department makes the decision to close the beach to off road vehicle traffic.

Read addressed some people’s concern that the town continued to sell stickers even after it knew the beach was going to be closed. Read said this was not true. He explained the timeline that lead up to the beach closures, saying that he received an email from Endangered Species Officer Mike Pforr on May 29 outlining that the beach could be closed at all three cross overs and at Duxbury Beach Park (also known as Blakemans) “dependent upon plover activities.” Read forwarded that email to selectmen and advised them he would be providing them an update at their regularly scheduled June 3 meeting. He also asked the Harbormaster’s department to attend that meeting.

Read said Pforr verbally updated him on June 3 on the plovers on the beach, which at that time, totaled 15 nests and 18 pairs of birds. At the selectmen’s meeting later that evening, Read informed the board that the beach would be closed.

Read said the timing between when he received information about the plovers from Pforr and when he announced the closure six days later “was to ensure the circumstances were essentially the same and that the need still existed to close the beach — that is that no predation or other changes to the disposition of the birds had occurred, which could have ultimately allowed partial restricted access to the beach.”

“I wanted to make sure it was a sure thing,” said Read.

Read’s answer to Fenton’s question about how to investigate if the town had committed fraud by selling stickers with- out informing purchasers that the beach may be closed was to direct him to contact the attorney general’s office.

In response to those people who were not satisfied with the purchase of their sticker, Read said that because this year there have been “very unusual circumstances resulting in unprecedented restric- tions and closures to Duxbury Beach,” the town will provide “a one-time only 100 percent refund.”

To obtain the refund, the sticker must be returned in person to the treasurer/collector’s office at the Duxbury Town Hall on or before Friday, June 28 and then a refund check will be mailed. The town will not accept mailed-in stickers. The treasurer/collector’s office will verify the authenticity and completeness of each sticker.

There is nothing forbidding a person who turns in his or her beach permit for a refund from buying another sticker at a later date, Read said.

Residents with over-sand stickers may park in the resi- dent’s pedestrian lot as that portion of the beach is not com- pletely closed. Non-residents may not use the resident’s lot. However, to mitigate the impact to non-residents, Dux- bury Beach Reservation Inc., President Margaret Kearney announced that non-resident ORV sticker holders may park in the public area at Duxbury Beach Park, accessed through Marshfield.

In the time since the beach closures were announced, many plover chicks have hatched. As of Monday, said Read, there were 18 nesting pairs of plovers that have produced 11 broods consisting of approximately 31 chicks on the beach between the area of Blakeman’s and Plum Hills. Also, there are four nests due to hatch soon, two pairs of birds expected to re-nest and one pair that is about to nest for the first time.

Read invited Dr. Scott Melvin, a senior zoologist with the Natural Heritage and Endangered Species program from the Massachusetts division of fisheries and wildlife to explain how and why the piping plovers are protected, which necessitates closing parts of the beach each year.

Melvin said there are two state laws and one federal law that protect both the birds’ hab- itat and the birds from being “killed, harmed or harassed.” The plovers were declared a threatened species by the state and federal governments in the late 1980s, he said, because of their rarity and declining popu- lation. At that time, there were only 130 pairs of the birds in the state. Now there are 675 pairs. The total number of plo- vers on the Atlantic coast is 1,800 pairs.

There are published federal and state guidelines for how beach owners must protect the birds, namely by closing the areas of their nests to vehicles and people. Because piping plover chicks begin to run around within hours after hatching, Melvin said they are very difficult to protect from vehicles.

“We look for complete closure to recreational vehicles to protect them from being stepped on or driven on,” said Melvin. “We ask that these closures remain in place until the chicks can fly 50 yards or for 35 days, whichever comes first.”

The restrictions in Duxbury are “no different” than those that have been in place for the last 15 years at other beaches with plovers and roads in other parts of the state, Melvin said.

Even with the annual beach closures and protections, Melvin said that between 40 to 60 percent of the piping plover eggs are lost and that 40 to 60 percent of chicks don’t survive to fledging.

He pointed out that if Duxbury officials could be faulted for anything in this situation “it is for being too honest” about the end date of July 15. “They’ve essentially given out a worst case scenario,” he said.

The meeting was well attended as most of seats in the dining room of the Senior Center were occupied. Comments from the public included some who were upset that the town felt that the birds came first, while others thought that the communication from the town hall about the closures could have been better.

Terry Reiber of Tremont Street said he felt the town gave different information out to the media, saying there were varying reports in the daily papers about how long the beach would be closed. He also wondered why the town did not attempt a “robo- call” to its residents explaining the beach closures when it had used this system very frequently during the February blizzard to keep citizens aware of electrical outages and road closures. Reiber, who is the head of the Duxbury Business Association, also pointed out that the beach closure had a negative economic impact on various businesses who profit from beach traffic.

Crescent Street resident Attorney Paul Driscoll said he thought the town was too focused on the impact to the birds instead of on the effect on people.

“The attitude here is that there is nothing we can do about this,” said Driscoll. “This is an economic blow to the town and also a quality of life blow to the people who live here.”

Driscoll wanted to know if there was a way to over- come the closures by creating habitat for the plovers so they nest away from the crossovers. He worried that there may be many more complete closures of the beach in the future as the plovers grow in population.

Duxbury Beach Reservation Inc., President Margaret Kearney said artificial habitat is created for the plovers annually with some success and said there was no need to worry about the future since areas of the beach have been closed every year for the birds since the 1990s.

“We do not have to panic that we are going to be overrun with plovers,” said Kearney. “It happens every year, just not to this extent.”

Harbormaster Don Beers said that without closures there are 11,088 linear feet of beach for vehicle access. This translates to approximately 22 feet per car for the 500 cars allowed on the front beach. When there are temporary restrictions due to shorebirds, Beers said the amount of beach is reduced to around 4,500 linear feet, which means each car gets only 9 feet each.

Selectman Ted Flynn said he felt that the town has “acted appropriately” in offering refunds to beach sticker holders. He pointed out that there is a disclaimer on each sticker saying that a sticker does not guarantee the owner access to the beach. He also reminded the audience that the beach stickers are good for one year, not just the summer season.

Read promised the town would continue to monitor the situation, be responsive to the needs of beach goers and re- open the beach once it could. The town has set up a hotline for beach conditions that it will update twice a day - morning and afternoon. The number is 781 934-2866, extension 5.