On Tuesday, the Edgartown select board heard from concerned town officials regarding how to proceed with the next phase of a beach nourishment project following the Trustees of Reservations’ (TTOR) decision to relinquish stewardship of — and funding for — Norton Point.
Norton Point, a barrier beach stretching over two miles, connects Edgartown to Chappaquiddick, and is owned by Dukes County, but has been managed by the Trustees since 2006.
TTOR’s announcement of its decision not to renew its contract agreement for Norton Point management with the county by its lease expiration date on March 31 came after a presentation to county commissioners by Edgartown officials who argued that the property would be best managed by the town.
The Norton Point nourishment project, which began in 2021, aims to enhance the resilience of the coastal landscape by enforcing sand dunes and repairing eroded beachfront. The second phase of the project, which was set to begin at the end of 2022, was made possible through a relief grant (American Rescue Plan Act 2021) of $100,000, which was applied for by the town of Edgartown and secured by state Sen. Julian Cyr.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Edgartown conservation agent Jane Varkonda expressed unease about a recent letter sent to state Sen. Julian Cyr from Linda Orel, Trustees senior director of government relations, citing the Trustees self-exaltation of its successful work at Norton Point, along with its plans to completely abandon the second phase of its beach restoration project, in addition to relinquishing its stimulus funding.
In her letter, Orel stated that the Trustees will not be completing the project because the management agreement with the county is to expire.
Varkonda called Orel’s statement “confusing, at best,” considering that phase two was slated to begin in November, prior to Edgartown’s official move to take over the beach, and seemingly before the Trustees decided not to pursue a contract renewal.
“The Trustees has made significant capital investments at the beach,” Orel’s letter stated. “We have successfully nourished and restored the dunes and plantings through our Norton Point restoration project, enhancing the climate resiliency of this critical resource … We are proud of our work to preserve, protect, and restore this iconic coastal system for tens of thousands of visitors to use and enjoy each year since 2006.”
“I find her assumption that this was a TTOR initiative misinforming,” said Varkonda, “and at best, fails to acknowledge the role of the town of Edgartown in this project.”
“The [restoration] project was a town-led initiative,” she said. “The funds for the design and permitting were funded by a state MVP [Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness] grant written and submitted by the town of Edgartown.”
Additionally, Varkonda argued, the Trustees contributed a capital investment of “less than 20 percent” for the sand nourishment of both South Beach and Norton Point.
“Given that 90 percent of the sand nourishment occurred on Norton Point, I would not characterize the investment as significant,” Varkonda said.
Varkonda shared statements made by TTOR reps at their Dec. 28 meeting with Edgartown conservation and county management: “The project is not cost-effective,” she said of TTOR, “they don’t have the funds to proceed due to an issue with the donor, and they were concerned that the newly constructed dunes were less able to withstand erosion forces than the natural dunes.”
Varkonda harkened back to continual acknowledgment by the Trustees of the urgency of coastal resilience projects, and promises made to ensure its protection and nourishment. “TTOR has failed to take into account that this dune restoration is still critical to protect the eastern end of the Herring Creek,” Varkonda said.
She called the timing of tThe Trustees announcement to step away as stewards of Norton Point “perplexing.”
“TTOR pledged to follow through with this project during the grant submission and the project permitting process,” Varkonda said. “Phase two of the Norton Point dune restoration has been on our radar screens and in the planning process since the spring of 2021 … Failure to secure funding and implementation of plans and contracts to launch and complete this project with repeated requests from the town for updates and status of the project, at the 11th hour, is to me, confusing at best.”
Varkonda said she’s been in communication with the county, and hopes to “persuade” the Trustees to continue its beach project. “It’s their responsibility,” she said.
The $100,000 state grant that’s been earmarked specifically for the Norton Point project would either need to undergo a lengthy rewriting/reissuing, or the Trustees would have to complete what they started, town administrator James Hagerty said.
“Ultimately the Trustees have made millions of dollars in the past decade-plus in that area,” said Hagerty. “It’s very untimely that as soon as the beach is not going to go to them for this current year, they’re pulling the money back, in turn, putting the town in a very precarious place.”
Hagerty questioned when, and if, the dune restoration project would be able to get done at all. “It won’t get done by March,” he said. “It might not get done, period.”
“This almost feels spiteful,” said select board member Mike Donaroma, adding that “TTOR has been nothing but aggravation to deal with.”
Select board member Arthur Smadbeck agreed. “Certainly, leaving Edgartown high and dry and in the lurch, after all these years of the relationship we’ve had, it’s more than unpleasant,” he said.
The select board concurred that the Trustees’ recanting of its promise of funds to support the beach project is “completely unacceptable,” and agreed to have Hagerty engage the parks department and the county to work on finding a solution.
In a call with The Times, Cynthia Dittbrenner, director of coast and natural resources for the Trustees, said that the organization has contributed “over $100,000” to the first phase of the Norton Beach nourishment project.
Dittbrenner said the Trustees have been mulling over whether to continue with the project’s next phase for around six months.
“There’s been a lot of erosion [in the area],” she said; “we were unclear whether phase two was going to be worth the cost we were investing in it.”
Dittbrenner said the total project cost for the second phase was estimated at $360,000, which, after the ARPA grant, would leave the Trustees responsible for a significant amount, which would be raised via fundraising over the next few years.
“It’s just no longer feasible for us to do that, since we won’t be managing the beach,” Dittbrenner said.
When asked how it would be more feasible if the Trustees remained the stewards of Norton Point, Dittbrenner said because the money raised through fundraising efforts comes from private donors, specifically for that use. She said interested donors can now reach out to the town if inclined.