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I-Team: Are They Protecting The Plovers, Or Their View?

BOSTON (CBS) - An unspoiled stretch of sand and breathtaking views, Plymouth Long Beach is one of the best parts of living in this coastal community. "I've been coming here my whole life," Belinda Brewster explained through the howling wind on the beach.

Ashley McInerney is also a lifelong resident of Plymouth. She brings her 2-year-old son to the beach almost daily during the summer. "It's a good place for the kids to run and play," she said.

During the last few years, getting kids out to the best part of the beach has become a lot more difficult, and residents fear it could get worse. A gate blocks vehicles from accessing the beach for nearly half the summer as part of an effort to protect piping plovers and other fragile shore birds.

Now, a well-funded organization is pushing to keep even more cars off the beach.

Residents like Brewster and McInerney say it's nearly impossible for families to walk the three mile stretch with small children and all the stuff that goes along with them. "Once you block ORVs (off-road vehicles), very few people will be able to get out there," Brewster said.

David Gould, the environmental manager for the town of Plymouth says he doesn't see the need for further restrictions on the beach. "We've done a great deal to protect endangered shore birds," he said.

Plymouth does not allow cars to drive on the beach while the birds are nesting. That means the beach is closed for all but a few weeks during the summer. When cars are allowed, a large potion of the beach his roped off to protect the bird's habitat.

The state of Massachusetts agrees that Plymouth's management of the beach is sufficient to protect the endangered birds, but not everyone agrees. Scott Hecker is the executive director of the Goldenrod Foundation, a private foundation that along with a handful of citizens and another environmental group has filed numerous legal challenges to Plymouth's use of the beach. He believes cars should be permanently banned from the area of the beach where the birds nest.

With a tax-exempt beach-front cottage used by scientists and birdwatchers, you might think Goldenrod is a large organization with a lot of financial contributors. But the I-Team found it is just three people: Hecker, along with founder San Francisco millionaire Cate Muther and her husband, Dennis Aftergut. "They are supporting a cause that they believe in and that I believe," Hecker explained.

Muther and her husband also own a personal home, just a few feet away from the Goldenrod cottage.

Goldenrod's website states its mission is to: conserve and protect the coastal environment in Southeastern Massachusetts. But when we asked Hecker what other beach management plans Goldenrod has challenged, his answer was none.

Tax records obtained by the I-Team show Cate Muther and her husband were the only contributors to Goldenrod in 2008. In 2009, using another foundation she created, Muther donated $775,000, more than half of which was spent on lawyers pushing for more restrictions on the beach.

Plymouth's town manager wants to keep the beach accessible to cars, but he says the town can't keep spending tens of thousands of dollars fighting Goldenrod in court. "They are able to outspend us," he said. "I believe they are going to be successful in being able to appeal our beach management plan to a point where it's going to be almost impossible for the public to use it."

A decision on the latest appeal filed by Goldenrod is due any day now. If Goldenrod is successful, it could be precedent-setting. That means beach across the state could face similar restrictions.

The I-Team will keep you posted.

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