The fighting chair of East Beach

One woman’s drive to fish Chappy Beach reveals what lies beneath the debate over access.

OSV gathered at Norton Point in a prior summer. —Steve Myrick

For Holly Mercier — like many Islanders and visitors — East Beach on Chappaquiddick is a sanctuary, a beautiful place where friends, family, fishermen, and beachgoers can gather, meet, and appreciate life.

For Mercier, she has struggled with mobility since being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis more than two decades ago, and she ultimately lost her ability to walk in 2021. As an avid fisherman, she feared that she would be losing one of her greatest passions. “Fishing is so important to me; I was really down in the dumps,” Mercier said.

But thanks to members of her fishing community — namely Sandy Fisher and Jeff Komarinetz — the Islander has been able to maintain her great passion with a little bit of ingenuity. 

Her fellow fishermen crafted Mercier a special fighting chair. Fighting chairs are typically built for fishing boats, for reeling in big fish. But Mercier’s chair is mobile. She can hitch it to the back of a pickup truck, and then haul it out to a fishing spot.

“I’ve just slowly lost everything, and having that chair, that has been huge,” Mercier said.

But there’s only so many places on the Vineyard that offer a suitable location to bring the mobile fighting chair. And East Beach, out on the eastern side of Chappy, is a perfect spot for the Mercier, not just because it’s a great place to fish and socialize, but because of over-sand vehicle access. Mercier can roll right up to the edge of the water with her fellow fishermen and cast a line.

But outside of her struggles with M.S., there’s a looming threat to Mercier’s ability to fish at some Chappy beaches. And it isn’t just Mercier, or just fishermen for that matter, but families and beachgoers who have for decades been able to access East Beach by vehicle.

An ongoing dispute between beach access advocates and some private landowners on Cape Poge has continued on multiple fronts, including an appeal at the state level.

One of the latest issues to unfold is before the Edgartown zoning board of appeals. It has to do with a permit that the Trustees of Reservations — which manages Chappy beaches — seemingly obtained decades ago from the town, but is now nowhere to be found. 

As zoning officials said at recent hearings, there’s evidence of the Trustees receiving planning board approval for over-sand vehicle access on Cape Poge, but there are no records of the permit itself actually being filed at town hall. Neither the town or TTOR have been able to produce the actual document.

The issue came to light after Victor Colantonio, a landowner on Chappaquiddick, earlier this year filed a request with Edgartown zoning inspector Reade Kontje Milne to enforce a special permit for what he deemed an intensification of activities on the Trustees’ Chappaquiddick properties. Specifically, the areas on Cape Poge were 55 Lighthouse Road and Road to the Gut, which are owned by the Dawn Roberta Colantonio Revocable Trust, of which Victor Colantonio is a trustee. He requested the zoning inspector issue a cease-and-desist order against the Trustees.

But in March, Milne declined Colantonio’s request. In a letter to Colantonio, Milne wrote that the Edgartown planning board had approved a special permit in 1990 with a condition that the board monitor the Trustees’ activities on an annual basis. But in doing so, she also noted that the original Trustees permit couldn’t be located. 

“Since the special permit has not been located, it is my opinion that the planning board must make an initial assessment of TTOR’s permitting status,” she wrote. Milne also wrote that she did not have sufficient information to determine whether the Trustees had increased the intensity of use in these areas.

Colantonio appealed the inspector’s inaction to the Edgartown zoning board of appeals, which took up the issue over the course of two meetings on June 5 and June 12. Ultimately, the zoning board agreed with the zoning inspector, requiring the trustees to resubmit an application to the planning board — and within the next several weeks.

The decision, and the whole process before the zoning board, has left public access proponents frustrated. 

In a statement to The Times, Peter Sliwkowski said the latest zoning issue was a distraction from more important processes working through the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) and the state’s Land Court.

“What is the purpose of the ‘special permit,’ to simply remedy an issue that has persisted for over 34 years?” Sliwkowski said in a statement. “What problem is the town attempting to solve in an already complex situation? Adding more variables won’t simplify the equation; it will only make it more difficult to resolve.”

Others say that the Trustees should simply be following proper procedure; a special permit is a requirement, and the Trustees should not be given special treatment. 

Over the course of the two meetings, proponents and opponents of the appeal made their cases. 

Some Cape Poge property owners said the sale of over-sand vehicle stickers constituted a commercial activity, which they said should not be occurring on Chappaquiddick, since the entire area is residentially zoned. Some residents, like Edward Self, said the Trustees have generated millions of dollars through the sale of these OSV stickers. 

Self, a lifelong summer resident of Chappaquiddick, insisted property owners were not aiming to block the public from enjoying the beaches. Rather, the call for limitations on OSVs was from a concern over environmental degradation of the areas, such as erosion. 

On the other hand, beach access advocates pointed out that Islanders have historically enjoyed recreational activities at Cape Poge, and that over-sand vehicles are the main way for people to access the beaches. 

Chris Kennedy, a former beach manager for the Trustees, called upon the town to help facilitate dialogue between the two groups. “The best way to ensure generational protection of our beaches is to allow people to enjoy, rest, relax, and treasure these natural wonders, to own these natural treasures in their hearts and minds,” he said. 

He also said OSVs being driven on Chappaquiddick properties have decreased compared with 1990, when the permit process occurred.

Kennedy also pointed out that the barrier beaches on Chappaquiddick can “absorb” the wear from visitors, bouncing back the following spring. He said a storm would cause more damage than OSV travel on the beaches. 

Beach access advocates also pushed back against the claim that the sale of over-sand vehicle stickers are a commercial activity. They argued that the revenue was used by the Trustees to offset the costs of managing Chappaquiddick properties. 

Access advocates also noted that drivers have been able to access the beaches for decades. Dylan Sanders, the attorney representing the Trustees, said the sale of OSV stickers has been occurring since 1975, and has not been called a commercial activity until now. “The Trustees are in full compliance with the zoning bylaws,” he said. 

Sanders said the zoning board shouldn’t proceed as if the permit does not exist because the document itself can’t be located. He also argued against needing a new permit process for the historic uses on the existing trails. 

The Edgartown zoning board of appeals ultimately voted unanimously to support the zoning inspector’s decision to not issue a cease-and-desist order, pointing to the lack of a permit to guide her actions. 

But in the same motion, the board required the Trustees to file an application by July 12 with the planning board for a special permit for its activities in the Cape Poge area, or else cease operations there. 

“They’ve operated for many years without a permit,” Robin Bray, a zoning board of appeals alternate member, said. “It’s time to correct this.” 

Martin Tomassian, the zoning board of appeals chair, said permitless activity by the Trustees over the years was “absolutely outrageous.” 

Tomassian was also adamant that the zoning board was not closing down the beaches, a concern he said became a “red herring” amid the conversation surrounding Chappaquiddick beaches. 

But the chair did say if the beaches were to be closed, the Edgartown conservation commission staff would administer the areas. Meanwhile, beachgoers would have to act as “mini patrols” and police themselves. 

Following the decision, Chappy landowner Rachel Self told the Times that the special permit from the planning board was necessary. She referred to how the Edgartown conservation commission’s order of conditions was meant to tell the Trustees how to operate their properties on Chappaquiddick, but the actual permitting body was the planning board. 

“It’s almost as if the ConComm has set a speed limit, but the Trustees don’t have a license to drive,” she said. 

Self said issues surrounding Chappaquiddick beaches will be resolved once the Trustees apply for and are awarded the appropriate permit, alongside whatever decision MassDEP comes to after the appeal process. 

Self said there are ways for people to access beaches on Chappaquiddick other than over-sand vehicles, which, she said, she offered to help arrange for people who needed assistance. 

Trustees spokesperson Mary Dettloff declined to comment other than to say the Trustees have maintained beach access for some six decades, and that leadership would be reviewing the zoning board’s decision.

Meanwhile, on a separate track, the Trustees are awaiting a ruling from MassDEP over a recent set of appeals against the Edgartown conservation commission’s May order of conditions that detail how the Trustees’ Chappaquiddick properties should be managed. The commission set a limit to the number of cars that could access the beaches, capping the number at 30 vehicles at Cape Poge Wildlife Refuge and 200 vehicles at Leland Beach/Wasque Reservation, a Chappaquiddick property the Trustees manages with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries. 

Both the Trustees and abutters were dissatisfied with the decision. The Trustees noted the orders were too limiting, while the abutters stated there weren’t enough data presented to support the number of vehicles approved in these Cape Poge areas. The two parties appealed the orders to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection.

Edmund Coletta, a MassDEP spokesperson, said the appeal is under review by the department’s Wetlands Program in the Southeast Regional Office in Lakeville. 

MassDEP will be issuing a superseding order of conditions once the review is completed. 

Colantonio, who made the appeal to the zoning board, is also one of the plaintiffs feuding with the Trustees in a Massachusetts Land Court lawsuit. The complaint alleges that the Trustees’ sale of OSV stickers has led to damage to the coastal environment, damage to Colantonio’s own residence, and trespassing by drivers.


  1. Without getting into any of the details of this situation, I would just like to suggest that, when Mr. Colantino bought his property,
    over the sand driving had been well established on Chappaquiddick. It had been an accepted recreational practice for fishing, etc.for years, actually decades. So he knew, or should have known, what would happen when he bought the property.
    Why do these individuals always try to run/ruin everything?

  2. As I have noted in my MV Times Letters To The Editor (“OSV Access Is Essential, Wealth Transfers Are Not” and “Beach Theft In Progress” among others) this select group of Cape Poge landowners have proven that their manipulative ingenuity is matched only by their profound lack of shame. They are hell bent on establishing a private playground for their exclusive enjoyment. They are tired of having to share the beach with us (“The Masses” as we were described by one landowner in the MV Times) and they will pull any possible lever to reach this goal. They have conjured a speck of administrative oversight (a lost permit from 34 years ago that the town acknowledges was issued) into a wild goose chase that threatens use of this public beach. They are also accusing the TTOR of operating a commercial enterprise by selling permits to access the beach. This is ridiculous assertion because TTOR is a non profit. Using this logic, the Cape Poge landowners should pursue a cease and desist order on the Edgartown Fire Department because they sell T shirts. Criminal investigators always ask a simple question – Cui Bono? Who Benefits? Not the TTOR. Not the thousands of common folks (“The Masses”) who simply want to visit Chappy beaches to enjoy some solitude. The ONLY people who benefit from abolishing OSV access on Chappy are the 12 Cape Poge landowners, and even some of them do not support this outrageous pursuit. “The Masses” are fueled by common sense and common decency, and we remain steadfast in our support of public rights.

  3. Chappy isn’t zoned for “commercially selling stickers”????? WHAT a DESPERATE reach!!!! Legal smoke and mirrors!!!! Easy enough to fix…….online sales!!!! No money changes hands on Chappy!!! Put THAT in your pipe and smoke it!!!!

  4. The “drive on the beach at Chappy” crowd didn’t see this coming… Really?

    Paraphrasing Martin Niemöller:
    First they came for the people who didn’t live in West Tisbury and eliminated the beach access to Lamberts Cove and I did not speak out because I didn’t like going to Lamberts Cove anyway. Then they came for the boat owners that wanted to anchor in Cape Pogue, Katama Bay and Menempsha Pond and I did not speak up because I was not a boat owner. Then they came for the people who like to anchor in Tashmoo and I did not speak up because I don’t like pulling up an anchor anyway. Then they came for the people who like to drive on the beach using the excuse that they are “fishing” and I did not speak up because I don’t have four wheel drive and don’t like the smell of fish on my hands. Then they came for the thing I like to do, on the island that I love, and there was no one left to speak for me.

    Wake the F up people. You are next. Stop the madness.

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