CHATHAM - For as long as anyone can remember, homeowners in Chatham have accommodated on their beaches the battered skiffs and dinghies of local fishermen. The dinghies were the only way fishermen could reach their boats moored just offshore. And so, small vessels littered the shoreline, nestled in the sand amid the scallop shells and seaweed, an accepted part of the landscape.
But Chatham is no longer a little fishing village. As in other Cape Cod communities in recent years, its beaches have become coveted addresses for wealthy out-of-towners. And recently, some people with waterfront property and out-of-state area codes have started demanding that locals remove their small boats from their beaches.
The latest demand - made this month in a legal notice by San Francisco homeowners looking to sell their waterfront land for a tidy $10.75 million - has sparked what longtime Chatham resident Ned Webster calls "the big dinghy flap." It has become more than just a controversy about dinghies and where they can and cannot be kept. Locals say it is about Chatham's soul being eroded by newcomers with thick wallets, newcomers whom they refer to as "wash-ashores."
"The problem that I have with it is, these people come down here and say, 'Oh, look. Isn't it cute? Isn't it wonderful? Look at that cute little fisherman out there working hard,' " said Sean Summers, a Chatham native and local selectman. "Then they buy in and say: 'We're going to do things my way now.' "
For as long as there have been people fish ing on Cape Cod, there have been dinghies, dories, skiffs, and the occasional canoe parked in the sand on Chatham's beaches. With 2,500 watercraft moored offshore, officials estimate that during peak fishing times of the year there are at least 1,000 dinghies and other small craft on Chatham's 66 miles of beaches, secured by rusted anchors or, in at least one case, chains wrapped around a cinder block.
"People for years - eons, if you will - have been storing dinghies down at the shore in order to access their boats and their moorings. It's just become a tradition," said Ted Keon, Chatham's coastal resources director. "You just kind of leave it there and wait till the next time you go out."
But in many cases the fishermen have no right to do that. Under Massachusetts law, owners of waterfront property generally own the beach to the low water mark. And with property values on the rise in Cape Cod communities, officials have started receiving more complaints about dinghies in recent years.
Homeowners have a variety of beefs.
"It depends on the homeowner, but some say, 'I can't get to the beach because I've got to climb over dinghies' or that the dinghies are abandoned," said Chatham harbormaster Stuart Smith. "Some just think they're an eyesore."
The latest complaint, though, wasn't so much a complaint as a warning, issued by a Boston law firm. The owners of a property overlooking Stage Harbor in Chatham published legal notices in the local newspaper, demanding that people remove all boats from their beach by last Friday. If the boats weren't removed, the notice said, they would be disposed of.
Christine Spring, a San Francisco woman who has been one of the owners of the property since 1987, told the Globe in a brief interview this week that her family has owned the land for 40 years and always allowed fishermen to leave boats on the beach.
She wouldn't comment further, refusing to say why, after all these years, her family would suddenly make an issue out of the boats. But locals believe it has something to do with the for sale sign near the driveway. The home is currently under agreement, according to the real estate agency listing the property, set for a closing date in March. And Spring's lawyer, Anatoly Darov, said the homeowners have every right to have the boats removed, for any reason.
"The landowners own the property and someone else is leaving personal property on their land," explained Darov of the Burns & Levinson law firm in Boston. "If somebody were to come by my house and drop a boat on my front lawn, I'd probably take it and throw it away. So it really does come down to a personal property issue."
But to some locals, this is yet another sign that their town has changed - and not for the better. Dan Buckley, an 85-year-old Chatham native, understands property rights but wonders why the homeowners had to go about it in this way. His wife, Anna, one year his junior, shook her head this week and blamed the problem on one thing: "Too many wash-ashores," she lamented. And Summers said the dinghy debate reminded him of another low point in 2004 when some in Chatham wanted to ban the storage of lobster pots and boats in residential yards.
"The reasons why people want to come here and be part of this community, be part of this culture, are being eroded by the very folks that want to come here and buy into that culture," said Summers. "It feels like an assault on our way of life and that's what makes me want to recoil."
The immediate problem appears to be solved, town officials say. Last week, they relocated a handful of unclaimed dinghies from the property, moving them down the beach. But they say they still need to find a long-term solution.
The beaches are still dotted with dinghies, including some two dozen still marooned near the property in question - some seaworthy, some clearly not. Ideas being floated to reduce the number of beach-bound dinghies in the future include instituting a system whereby beaches would be supplied with one dinghy for all fishermen or installing an outhaul rig on the water - a sort of clothesline for boats.
But once property owners realize just how ugly that contraption could be, Summers said, maybe they will accept the way things are now. Or maybe they can take a cue from Richard MacDonald, a part-time Chatham resident who finally got fed up last fall with all the dinghies on his property on the Oyster Pond River.
They were eroding his beach, said MacDonald, a retired Dover businessman, ripping away sand and grass. He built a small fence and erected signs restricting boats to certain places. But MacDonald knows what a little beach access means to a lot of people.
And even as a "wash-ashore" who came to town just 15 years ago, he never considered banning dinghies outright, MacDonald said. "I guess I'm just not that kind of guy."
Keith O'Brien can be reached at email@example.com.