“Our purpose here is migrating birds. . . . Piping plovers nest on the beach. Disturbing adults off the nest in the summer could mean that the eggs will fry,” Hinds said.
The agency’s plan offers four alternatives to operate a beach and preserve tourism. One would keep the status quo, which would allow the beach to erode. Another would move the public beach about a mile north, establish remote parking lots and bus people to the new location.
Chincoteague prefers none of the above.
Mayor John Tarr led a group that countered with a fifth proposal: Keep the beach and parking lot’s approximately 1,000 spaces where they are and protect them from storm surge by building low sand dunes. The refuge says that wouldn’t help.
Echoing civic leaders and residents, Tarr said that if some of the changes proposed by the Fish and Wildlife Service are adopted at the end of next year, tourists would probably bypass Chincoteague for Ocean City.
Town residents point to a local survey that found that 82 percent of respondents said they would not come to Chincoteague if they had to load their beach stuff onto a shuttle.
In trying to reach an agreement and chart a future, Chincoteague and Fish and Wildlife have engaged in highly contentious meetings.
Every aspect of the town’s way of life is on the table. In one proposal, the agency would thin the herd of wild ponies the town is permitted to have from 150 to 120. A reduced herd would ensure that horses have enough food to survive lean times in the refuge, Hines said.
But Denise Bowden, spokeswoman for the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company, which manages and sells some of the horses at yearly auctions to supplement its budget, was livid.
“All we want is our 150 horses and our 961 parking spaces at the beach,” Bowden said. “For the life of me, I can’t understand how a government agency can possibly have this effect on a town.”
“Chincoteague relies on that beach,” said Tom Derrickson, general manager and part owner of the recently built Hampton Inn and Suites. “That was the big reason for building this hotel, because of the demand for rooms.”
Fearmongering has skewed the town’s perspective about the plan, Hinds said, adding that refuge employees have squabbled with family members over rumors that aren’t true.
Before the plan is final, so much can happen, Hinds said. Elements of the four alternatives could be pieced together in a way that can benefit everyone. Regardless of what happens, the town must face the fact that sea-level rise is coming to the nation’s coastline and that changes must be made, he said.
The strip of beach north of the current beach, which is near Toms Cove, is a solution because it is naturally protected from sea-level rise, storm surge and erosion, he said. Some parking could eventually be built within walking distance of the new beach so that not all tourists would have to be shuttled, Hinds said.
But the new location, near the swamp and pine of the refuge, has a major drawback that, after coaxing, Hinds acknowledged.
“Mosquitoes would be a big problem here, I have to admit,” he said.