The Saltwater Cowboys herd wild Assateague ponies toward the carnival grounds during the annual pony swim in Chincoteague, Va. (Ricky Carioti/Washington Post)

Over the years, residents and tourists in this picturesque resort town have been guided by five gentle words: “Relax, you’re on island time.”

But these days, laid-back Chincoteague is on edge.

In a new plan to deal with beach erosion and prepare for sea-level rise, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed changes that the mayor, the chamber of commerce and homeowners say would eventually drive away summer tourism and drive down the economy that depends on it. Some of those changes would involve closing the beach and its parking lot, then opening a beach with parking farther away and shuttling tourists.

Town leaders say vacationers won’t board shuttles with all their beach stuff — umbrellas, chairs and food. They’ll bypass Chincoteague for Ocean City, where hotels sit near the water.

Feelings are running high, as Beth Hanback learned after she helped shuttle tourists to the public beach after Hurricane Irene washed out the parking lot.

Approached in a grocery store by a little old lady who asked whether she helped with that shuttle, Hanback thought she was about to get a sweet, neighborly “attagirl.”

Not quite. “She sort of cleared her throat and spit at me,” Hanback said. “She said, ‘You’re going to kill this town with your [darn] shuttle.’ ”

Hanback, executive director of the Chincoteague Natural History Association, was flabbergasted. She was helping tourists, not endorsing the part of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s plan residents dislike most.

“We had so many happy folks who said this bus saved our vacation,” Hanback said. “I was really happy.”

For a town that relies on tourism, the stakes are high. The beach is the lifeblood of Chincoteague, swelling its 3,500 population about tenfold in summer.

But Chincoteague doesn’t control its beach. It’s part of the Assateague Island National Seashore, run by the federal National Park Service, and sits within the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, controlled by the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Charged with protecting endangered animals and managing the refuge on a shrinking budget, the Fish and Wildlife Service ar­gued in a 15-year comprehensive refuge plan that it can’t save the beach and its parking lot from the unrelenting forces of nature.

More than 100 yards of shoreline has been lost to the Atlantic Ocean since the mid-1960s, said Louis Hinds, the refuge manager. A federal visitors center has been moved twice from rising waters. And if cars didn’t occupy the 8.5-acre parking lot, piping plovers, an endangered shorebird the refuge protects, would nest there.

The changes facing Chincoteague are coming to coastal communities across the nation. In Hampton Roads, planning commissions are preparing for the day, 30 to 50 years from now, when sea-level rise reshapes the coast, and a few landowners are resisting.

At the core of the debate in Chincoteague are questions of fairness.

Should the federal government close a beach it established and helped popularize? Over a half-
century, it shored up Chinco­teague’s way of life, spawning dozens of hotels and hundreds of rental houses, restaurants and shops.

“If I’d known this was a possibility . . . we wouldn’t have quit our jobs and opened a store,” said Jonathan Richstein, who bought Sundial Books on Main Street in 2007 with his wife, Jane.

Should the town expect the current beach and parking to last on such a thin spit of land? Each time the lot is washed away by storm surge, as happened in late August, taxpayers pay $200,000 to $700,000 to restore it on land that could be used for wildlife.

“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.