A sandy path to Lobsterville Beach in Aquinnah has been reopened to the public, halting, at least for now, a contentious land-use battle between the town and the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah).
In a letter to the Aquinnah selectmen dated Aug. 12, tribal council chairman Cheryl Andrews-Maltais confirmed that the path would be reopened.
“The tribal council will permit the town temporary foot access across the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) Trust Lands on a designated path leading from Clay Pit Road to Vineyard Sound. In order to facilitate this action, the tribe’s natural resources department staff will temporarily remove the brush barrier in order to clear the footpath for ease of access,” she wrote.
“It is officially reopened,” said selectman and board chairman Camille Rose yesterday. “[The tribe] removed the impediments. The people in town will now be able to use it.”
Ms. Rose also said the issues of ownership and land use relating to the path have not yet been settled, and that the tribe made it clear in their letter that they were allowing town residents to use the path on a temporary basis. “I have no idea [what that means].,” Ms. Rose said, adding: “It’s open. It’s not the best of all possible solutions, but it’s open.”
The issue was first brought to the attention of the selectmen late last month, after the tribe had roped off the path and blocked the entrance with a pile of brush. A series of meetings followed, where the selectmen said the town’s right to use the path was protected under a 1983 land claims settlement agreement signed by both the tribe and town.
The tribe was invited to discuss the issue with the selectmen, via a letter that was delivered the day before the meeting was scheduled. Tribal council members failed to show for the meeting.
Then last week, selectman Jim Newman attended two meetings of the tribal council to ask that the path be reopened. Town counsel Ronald H. Rappaport attended the second meeting, and reportedly brought along documents showing the town’s right to use the path. Both meetings were closed to the public.
At a selectmen’s meeting last week, Mr. Newman reported that his meeting with the tribe had been productive.
The letter from the tribe arrived last Friday, addressed to Mr. Newman. In an e-mail to the Gazette yesterday, Mr. Newman wrote: “This was an historic event for Aquinnah, and reinforced the need to deal with the tribe on a government-to-government level, in a respectful manner. A public circus-like meeting with the tribe is disrespectful, damaging and unproductive.”
Ms. Rose said yesterday that she is glad the issue has been resolved for the time being, and she hopes for improved dialogue with the tribe. “It’s been difficult and it’s a difficult time of year,” she said of the circumstances surrounding the closure. “I would hope that this kind of thing doesn’t happen again without our being able to sit down and discuss things in a reasonable way, and not take precipitous action . . . that causes bad feelings. It’s not necessary.”
Ms. Rose said she hopes the path issue will serve to make people think twice before taking action without first going through the necessary channels. “It’s this sort of thing that will make people more conscious of doing things like that without getting permission . . . whether it’s the town or the tribe or the state or anything,” she said.
But she also said there remains more to discuss with the tribe in the future. “The issue has not been settled, obviously, because [the letter] says that it’s opened temporarily,” she said.
Ms. Andrews-Maltais could not be reached for comment, and tribal natural resources director Bret Stearns had no comment yesterday.
Ms. Rose simply called it progress. “It has certainly progressed over the situation that existed before,” she said. “I think that it will make people in town more conscious of the fact that we actually share these things. We’re more conscious of the situation that we have here, with access to the beach, and how we should respect it,” she said.
by Megan Dooley