County kicks off Norton Point negotiations

Trustees will hand over management and stewardship of barrier beach to Edgartown.

Dukes County commissioners are currently working to transfer management of Norton Point Beach from the Trustees of Reservations to the Town of Edgartown. — MV Times

With the Trustees of Reservations stepping away from their role as stewards and managers of Norton Point Beach, Dukes County Commissioners must work to assist in handing off that responsibility to the town of Edgartown — currently the only entity to step forward.

Norton Point, a vital barrier beach stretching over two miles, connects Edgartown to Chappaquiddick, and serves as a habitat for protected wildlife, along with being an ideal location for fishing and recreation. It is owned by the county, and has been managed by the Trustees since 2006. 

At the Dec. 21 regular county commission meeting, Islands director for the Trustees Darci Schofield said the organization has deliberated extensively as to how to move forward with protecting the vital area. “We truly love and value Norton Point Beach. We also want to express our sincerest gratitude for the honor to manage this very special place,” Schofield said. The active management agreement between the county (which owns the beach) and the Trustees is set to expire on March 31. Additionally, with permitting deadlines looming and towns looking to finalize their financials in the coming months, it’s essential that Edgartown assume official management of the beach as soon as possible.

“We also want to reiterate strongly our commitment to help make a smooth transition,” Schofield continued. With the summer season just around the bend, and multiple ongoing conservation projects at Norton Point, Schofield said it is in every involved party’s best interest to expedite the handover process. “We are invested in the town or the new manager’s success, and want to share our knowledge and expertise in these matters,” Schofield said. 

With decades of experience managing the property, Schofield said the Trustees are willing to provide hands-on training with their current beach manager, along with sharing knowledge of over-sand vehicle dynamics related to administration and preservation, on-the-ground training with a Trustees ecologist, and all recent data around shorebirds. “Year-end reports, locations of nests, and how we implemented the Habitat Conservation Plan when we had chicks at the entrance to the beach,” Schofield said. “We are also offering to have the town’s shorebird technicians and ecologists shadow our technicians and ecologists so they can learn the nuances from someone who has tremendous amounts of experience.” Schofield added that the town has offered the Trustees a spot on a new Norton Point leadership committee, which she said they are more than happy to be a part of. 

Edgartown Parks Department commissioner Andrew Kelly said the town can begin entering into an agreement with the county before they receive initial funding from town appropriations, although they will need that seed money to commence operations and pay for salaries prior to receiving revenue from beach stickers for the season. “We can begin working out the agreement so we can take over starting April 1. There is a lot of paperwork that we have to get done in order for this to come to fruition,” Kelly said.

Commissioner elect Doug Ruskin asked if the county can legally enter into an agreement without going through a formal public procurement process. 

County manager Martina Thornton said intermunicipal agreements are exempt from any formal bidding procedure. Commissioner Tristan Israel said nothing is set in stone yet, and county officials will need to be involved in the development of an agreement if they are to move forward with Edgartown as the new manager and steward. “We are definitely going to need a little time to look at this new contract,” Israel said. “I think Edgartown gave a great presentation at our last [county] meeting, but it’s still going to take some time to look at this new agreement with our legal counsel.”

Although commissioner Leon Brathwaite agreed that more investigation would be needed before finalizing anything, he suggested the group vote to explore what it will take to establish the framework for the new partnership. “In these upcoming January meetings we can vote to finalize, but the clock is ticking, and I think the sooner we can get started, the better off we will be in the end,” Brathwaite said. 

Commissioner Peter Wharton moved to initiate negotiations between Thornton and the town of Edgartown for the purpose of managing Norton Point. Israel said Thornton will move forward with a small negotiations subcommittee, and anticipates that the county’s side of the agreement will be settled around the middle of January. Wharton’s motion was approved unanimously.


What’s up with OPEB?

The Dukes County other post employment benefits (OPEB) trust liability currently sits at about $10 million, with a current satisfied balance of about $1.5 million — constituting about 15 percent of the overall liability. John O’Hara, the county appointee to the OPEB trust, provided a bit of background on the situation at hand. “OPEB is one of two retirement plans that the county provides. Insurance plans, health, dental, and life. The retirement plan must be fully funded by 2040. Dukes County pensions will be fully funded by 2031,” O’Hara explained. In late November, trust representatives met with their auditors and actuary to establish a top-down view of the fiduciary responsibilities of the county. “We still have a ways to go,” O’Hara said. 

O’Hara added that he is pleased the county has adopted a formalized plan to fund the OPEB liability on an annual basis, and suggested that Martha’s Vineyard Airport (under the financial auspices of the county) continue to meet their budgeted contributions each year. 

As the calendar year draws to a close, O’Hara’s best estimate is that the OPEB trust will end the year down 18 percent. With post-employment benefits other than pensions, employers can make long-term investments to cover these obligations through a separate trust fund that will ideally, over time, result in a lower total cost for providing post-employment benefits. The current target asset allocation for the county OPEB trust, according to O’Hara, is 70 percent stocks, 20 percent bonds, and 10 percent real estate. Stock assets are passively managed, whereas bond and real estate holdings are actively managed by an appointed custodian. O’Hara noted that the market overall is down this year, which explains the 18 percent loss. “In contrast, a few years ago the trust was up 30 percent at the close of the year,” he said. 

Bob Rosenbaum, chair of the Martha’s Vineyard Airport Commission, said the airport has met their obligations in the past, and their commitment has always been to contribute at least as much as the annual liability before they close their books. “This is what we will continue to do,” Rosenbaum said. 

In other business, county commissioners received a public records request from the America First Legal Foundation, a right-leaning nonprofit organization formed by senior Trump White House advisor Stephen Miller. The request relates to any and all correspondence and documentation having to do with Venezuelan migrants landing on Martha’s Vineyard in September. Thornton said she will get back to the organization and acknowledge receipt of the request. “By Jan. 4, I will come up with an hourly rate for my services. We are going to have to look into the statute,” Thornton said. Generally, public records request services fall to the organization’s lowest-paid employee, but because Thornton is the primary contact, the work will fall to her and her assistant. 

Israel stressed the need for consistency when it comes to requests like these, “not just this organization, but any similar requests. We must apply these standards fairly to any organization, despite any personal bias.” Brathwaite suggested Thornton get in touch with the secretary of state’s office for statutory advice. Commission chair Christine Todd concurred with both Israel and Brathwaite — “We have local newspapers call all the time for public records. Are we charging them?”