Gone fishin’: Has Martha’s Vineyard gone to the dogs?

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This sign on a beach owned by C. Dean Metropoulos warns beach strollers not to trespass without a fishing rod or dog biscuits. — Photo by Nelson Sigelman

There are many things to consider when heading out to fish the Martha’s Vineyard shoreline. The tide, wind direction, any concentrations and type of bait, and ease of access come immediately to mind. Guard dogs do not.

This week, The Times received a Letter to the Editor from Mary Marro of Oak Bluffs, who said she had been walking along the Edgartown shoreline with a fishing rod when she encountered a sign that warned of video surveillance and guard dogs. “What kind of land owner would post this?” she asked.

It is a good question. I would understand a sign that read, “This beach patrolled by deer ticks” … or greenheads, or saltwater mosquitoes, but guard dogs? This is Martha’s Vineyard, not Detroit or the Hamptons. I decided to investigate.

Late Friday morning, I parked at Bend-in-the-Road. I grabbed my eight-foot St. Croix rod, tied on a bubble-gum-colored Sluggo and stuck some dog biscuits in my pocket, and began walking along the beach that borders Cow Bay.

I quickly left behind the smell of humans basted in tanning lotion at Bend-in-the-Road, and walked past rows of wooden cabanas. Further up the beach I saw a man in a bright yellow T shirt. There was a sign on a post in the sand. To my relief, the man in the shirt was not holding Cujo on a leash.

As I approached, the young man walked in my direction. His T-shirt said “security” on it in bold letters. He greeted me very pleasantly and said the beach was private property and that if I wanted to keep walking he could not stop me, but would I please respect the privacy of the owners. And he asked to see my fishing license.

I told him I appreciated the fact that he was only doing his job, but that I was not going to show him my fishing license; that I was well aware of my right to fish along that stretch of shore in or out of the water below the high-water mark; and I planned to write about this little corner of the world.

The young man, an Islander, said he also liked to fish and hunt. He explained that strollers carrying useless equipment sometimes used the excuse of fishing to gain access to what was a private beach. The owners, he said, only wanted people to respect their privacy, “just as anyone would.”

I will give the young man credit. He was polite and well-spoken. He said he recently had to ask two women carrying useless Zebco rods not to trespass. He said, “You looked like you knew what you were doing.”

I explained that if I had seen terns diving off bait in front of the beach, I would have headed right for the birds, but as I was only interested in checking out the sign, I was content to leave it at that and had no interest that day in walking further.

“No trespassing. This property is protected by video surveillance. Trespassers will be prosecuted,” read one sign with an image of a camera for effect. And in case you did not get the message, another sign under that one said, “No trespassing. Guard dogs on duty.”

Shoreline access is a contentious issue around the country. People like to walk along the ocean. On the other hand, property owners who shell out millions of dollars for waterfront property and pay huge annual tax bills expect some degree of privacy along with their assessment.

Massachusetts is one of several states that grant ownership to the low-water mark. The colonial ordinances commonly come up in any debate over access to the Island shoreline.

They were enacted between 1641 and 1647 by the Great and General Court, the term now applied to the state legislature. At that time, Massachusetts gave property owners property rights to the mean low-water mark. The intent was to stimulate the building of piers, wharves, and shoreside commerce. But the colonial government retained the rights for the public along the tidelands to “fishing, fowling, and navigating.”

“Everie inhabitant who is an hous-holder thall have free fishing and fowling, in any great Ponds, Bayes, Coves and Rivers so far as the Sea ebs and flows, within the precincts of the town where they dwell, unless the free-men of the same town, or the General Court have otherwise appropriated them …”

“… It is declared that in all creeks, coves and other places, about and upon salt water where the sea ebbs and flows, the Proprietor of the land adjoyning shall have proprietie to the low water mark where the sea doth not ebb above a hundred rods, and not more whereforever it ebbs farther. Provided that such Proprietor shall not by this libertie have power to stop or hinder the passage of boats or other vessels in, or through any sea creeks, or coves to other mens houses or lands.”

Some time back, when writing about this same topic, I spoke to David Hoover, general counsel for the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife and Environmental Law Enforcement. Mr. Hoover told me, “Assuming a person arrives at the tidelands legally, they may fish, fowl, or navigate, but must still obey local laws and not damage property or interfere with the property owners’ enjoyment of their property.”

It all comes down to common sense and consideration. Packing a picnic basket and carrying a broken fishing rod does not meet the test. Whooping and hollering at 1 am over a big fish is not a considerate exercise of the rights guaranteed in the colonial ordinance.

A check of town assessor records showed the $9 million Cow Bay property is owned by limited liability companies based in Greenwich, Conn. A few phone calls led me to the name of the owner, C. Dean Metropoulos, a self-made investor who is a testament to the American success story. According to Forbes magazine, Mr. Metropoulos is worth $2.1 billion, which buys a lot of sand.

Mr. Metropoulos and his sons Evan and Daren take beaten-down brands and spruce them up, according to Forbes. They sold Pabst Brewing in 2014 for an estimated $750 million, three times what they paid for the company in 2011. Their next fixer-upper is Hostess Brands, which they bought out of bankruptcy with Apollo Global Management in 2013.

From what I could learn from Derby records, Evan is the fisherman in the family. In 2010, he weighed in a 31.25-pound striped bass in the boat division that temporarily held the first-place spot. That may have been the year the family hired a Menemsha charter captain for the entirety of the Derby.

There are a few property owners who employ beach security guards to keep wandering plebeians — How do you tell a plebeian from a patrician in a Speedo? Plebeians don’t wear Speedos — off generally deserted stretches of beach, but I do not think there is another sign on the Island that references guard dogs. How would that look in one of the magazines devoted to telling the rest of the world how “special” the Vineyard is?

I tried unsuccessfully to reach Evan Metropoulos to see if he would mount the “Twinkie defense.” Maybe he put the sign up after eating too many Twinkies washed down with too many Blue Ribbons.

The family has been visiting Martha’s Vineyard for years. One would think some of the Island’s charm and sensibility would have rubbed off on them. To paraphrase Ronald Reagan: Mr. Metropoulos, take down that sign.