TROUBLE IN MR. ROGERS' NEIGHBORHOOD

Published: Saturday, June 22 1996 12:00 a.m. MDT

It was a beautiful day in the neighborhood. It was not a beautiful day for a neighbor.

On a sunny afternoon last August, 5-year-old William Soverino and his 3-year-old brother, Connor, were kicked out of Mr. Rogers' neighborhood. This was no Land of Make Believe: The boys and their mother were ordered off Fred Rogers' private beach on Smith Point, a breathtaking spit of land on the western tip of Nantucket.The culprit was not King Friday or the imperious Lady Elaine Fairchild, but one of Mr. Rogers' real-life relatives. Now Mr. Rogers and his neighbors are embroiled in a battle over access to Smith Point, with the town trying to take 45 acres of its beach and coastal wetlands by eminent domain.

As it happens, the selectman leading the charge for public access is Tim Soverino, who has not forgotten that his family was ejected from Rogers' $420,000 property for no apparent reason.

Smith Point residents say the takeover would be environmentally disastrous. But Soverino says he is convinced that what happened to his family was symptomatic of a larger problem on the island.

"I'm sick of this not-in-my-backyard mentality," said Soverino, a lifelong Nantucketer whose mother-in-law lives on Smith Point. "Nantucket is a gorgeous island, and everyone should be able to enjoy it. But it seems like every neighborhood is trying to keep visitors out. Even Mr. Rogers' neighborhood."

Fred Rogers, who lives in Pittsburgh but summers in Nantucket, was unavailable for comment, his publicist said.

But other Smith Point residents call the incident with the Soverinos an aberration, saying they welcome visitors to their 1.7-mile barrier beach. Their fear is that the proposed takeover is a veiled attempt to allow off-road vehicles into a fragile habitat for endangered shorebirds, a possibility they cannot accept.

"We have a nice community here," said David Huntoon, president of the Smith Point Association. "We'd like to keep it that way."

The Massachusetts Audubon Society supports the Smith Point neighbors, citing the need to protect endangered shorebirds. The society has also questioned the environmental credentials of the selectmen, who have sued their own Conservation Commission over endangered species protection in the past and have tried to exempt Nantucket from state wetlands regulations.

Since the controversy began, several Smith Point landowners have donated parcels to Audubon, led by the Rogers family, with 19 acres.

"We are not opposed to people using the beach, but extinction is forever," said Tim Storrow, Audubon's director of land protection. "We want to protect these birds from off-road vehicles, and the town seems threatened by that."

Nantucket's year-round population is less than 10,000; the summer population tops 40,000. As tourism on the island has exploded, its beach neighborhoods have fought to protect their serenity and environment.

At Cisco, the big issue is parking. Around Surfside, the uproar involves a town plan to expand public restrooms and a snack bar. On Smith Point, residents were fighting a proposed boat ramp long before the land issue arose.

Smith Point is one of the smallest and most isolated spots on Nantucket: about 60 summer homes, linked to the island by Millie's Bridge. A single sandy trail passes by most of the houses - including The Crooked House, the oddly-shaped turn-of-the-century farmhouse owned by the Rogers family - on the way to the jagged beach that juts between the ocean and Madaket Harbor.

No one can build on the land the town wants, but the battle over off-road vehicle access has galvanized the community. The Smith Point Association appealed to the state to block the seizure and managed to secure an unprecedented delay for public comment. A final decision is expected soon.

Two weeks ago, the town took half the disputed land anyway, calling it a road that requires no state approval for taking. The land looks more like beach than road, and residents say they, as well as their land, are being taken by the town.

"It's a joke," the association's Huntoon said. "They don't want to preserve the land; they want to exploit it."

The piping plover, an endangered species, and the least tern, a species "of special concern," now represent Smith Point's best hope for keeping out vehicles.

The tiny shorebirds have a strong constituency, which was made made clear by the recent gull poisonings to protect plovers on Monomoy Island. In 1994, the Audubon Society helped force Nantucket to adopt an aggressive beach management plan that sharply limited off-road access to Smith Point during summer.

But David Fronzuto, the town's marine superintendent, said the plan has a problem: It has failed to protect the birds.

In 1994, before the restrictions, eight plovers hatched on Smith Point. All eight survived. Last year, with 15 employees monitoring the birds and restricting beach access, two out of 24 plover eggs survived, and three out of 200 least tern eggs. Gulls, crows and other predators killed the rest.

The management program cost the town $100,000 - nearly enough to send four of the five surviving birds to an Ivy League college for a year.

"Everybody keeps telling me what a wonderful job we're doing, but it's been a total disaster," Fronzuto said. "We need more people and vehicles on the beach, not less. I think they scare the predators away."

Many would-be beachgoers are also unhappy with the frequent closings of the out-of-the-way beach. In his tackle shop, Bill Pew keeps a wooden plover next to a tongue-in-cheek description of the bird: "Preys chiefly on the livelihood of tackle dealers ... excellent grilled or quickly baked with a glaze of taragon butter."

"They're closing off prime spots during prime times," Pew said. "Are these birds more important than people?"

Soverino, a firefighter who chairs the town's Democratic Committee, says the battle over Smith Point has little to do with birds but much to do with Nantucket's future. He is proud that more than a third of the island has been preserved as open space, but asks, what good is open space that no one can use?

"Nantucket used to be such a friendly place, but now all these communities want to build walls around themselves," he said. "Are these 60 families more important than everybody else? I really have to question their motives."

For now, the entire beach is closed to vehicles, and will stay closed until four plover chicks learn to fly. So far this year, predators have eaten nine plover eggs, although the beach has little human traffic.

The town is already starting to think about next year, hoping to strike a balance between public access and plover safety. One idea being considered - a way to limit vehicles while still transporting visitors along the beach - seems especially appropriate for this neighborhood:

A trolley.

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