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Thursday, September 8, 2022

Fake fire districts intensify beach access struggle

On Guard: Public Access to Beaches Tightens

By Frank Carini / ecoRI News staff

Access to Quonochontaug Barrier Beach, also called Weekapaug Beach, is a point of contention between three fire districts and advocates for shoreline rights.

Thomas Micele lives less than 2 miles from what he calls “the most beautiful beach in Rhode Island,” but between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. from mid-June to mid-September he and the vast majority of Ocean State taxpayers have no access. A guard blocks the entrance.

Micele has written to the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) and the attorney general expressing his concern about the limited availability to Quonochontaug Barrier Beach, also called Weekapaug Beach.

In a Feb. 4 email to CRMC, he noted the Weekapaug Fire District is blocking access to the beach.

“They have a guard posted to be sure no one walks across the walkway to the beach,” he wrote. “Next to their beach entrance is a public right of way that is blocked by a fence. … It is on town property designated as a road on older town plats.”

Between June 15 and Sept. 15, the portion of Quonochontaug Beach owned by the Weekapaug Fire District can only be used by Weekapaug residents and their guests and by Shelter Harbor and Shady Harbor Fire District residents and their guests in leased areas, according to the Quonochontaug Beach Conservation Commission.

The commission also notes that from 6 p.m. to 9 a.m. anglers can access the shore over Weekapaug Fire District boardwalks for surf fishing, and clammers can access Quonochontaug Pond for clamming.

During that three-month summer period, the public can access the “Sand Trail” — a 37-foot-wide private/public path/road that leads to Quonochontaug Beach — and walk on the beach for nature walks, but “there shall be no swimming,” according to the commission, which was created to preserve, in as nearly as possible its natural state, one of the few remaining undeveloped barrier beaches in Rhode Island.

Micele, a retired educator, said he has been kicked off the beach because it was a few minutes past 9 a.m., and he said he has seen up to three guards patrolling the Sand Trail.

The mission of the Weekapaug Fire District, according to its homepage, is to provide fire protection and security to its homeowners and maintain beaches and roads within the district. The district, however, doesn’t actually fight fires, at least according to a story published last year by The Public’s Radio. The organization actually functions more like a homeowners’ association.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The problem of "fake fire districts" is a major factor in Rhode Island's battle over public access to the ocean. They do indeed serve as homeowner associations who own long stretches of beach as well as amenities such as tennis courts, boat launches, social clubs, etc. They sometimes own prime property which is shielded from property taxes. On top of being a tax rip-off, they are also an insult to real firefighters. One solution would be legislation to place a requirement of spending some significant portion of their money into real fire-fighting capability before being granted to call themselves a "Fire District."  - Will Collette

It also, at least according to a group of concerned residents, is illegally blocking a shoreline right of way, known as the Spring Avenue Extension, to keep the public from accessing 1.8 miles of what Dan King calls “pristine shoreline.”

A group called RI Coastal Access was created to cultivate public awareness and foster civic engagement for the preservation of the Ocean State’s coastline and state constitutional rights to shoreline access. One of the group’s initiatives is the controversy surrounding the Spring Avenue Extension.

In a document sent to CRMC’s legal counsel last September, Michael Rubin, a former assistant attorney general of Rhode Island, outlines what he believes is proof that the Weekapaug Fire District doesn’t have the right to control this shoreline access point.

The Weekapaug Fire District, however, continues to maintain it owns the disputed right of way. Both sides have filed memorandums with the state outlining their legal arguments.

ecoRI News reached out to CRMC about where the Spring Avenue Extension matter stands, but didn’t receive a response. In her Feb. 7 response to Micele’s email, Laura Dwyer, CRMC’s public educator and information coordinator, wrote the agency “has been aware of the issues in the Weekapaug Fire District for more than a year, and is currently working to address the issue.” She noted such a process “requires detailed and lengthy legal research.”

CRMC doesn’t have the authority to create new rights of way, so expanding public access to the coast requires identifying ones that already exist.

“There’s virtually no one out there on that beach in the summer,” said King, who surf fishes off Weekapaug Beach two or three times a week in the early morning, leaving well before the 9 a.m. curfew. “Look either way and it’s empty.”

This spot at the north end of Waters Edge Road in Watch Hill is supposed to be a public right of way to the shore.

Whittled down access

In late August, ecoRI News met with Micele, King, and Caroline Contrata on the back porch of Micele’s home on Quannacut Road. They spoke about the takeover of Weekapaug Beach by the Weekapaug, Shelter Harbor and Shady Harbor fire districts. They talked about how overall shoreline access in Westerly is increasingly being limited by the town, fire districts, and homeowners, to make summertime residents happy by keeping people like them away.

Besides Westerly’s two town beaches — Westerly Town Beach and Wuskenau Beach — and Misquamicut State Beach, they said most of the town’s other public access points to the coast are being blocked by a combination of practices and by apathetic town officials.

The three local residents said the public is largely forced to crowd itself onto some 500 yards of town beach and a half-mile of state beach, while the rest of Westerly’s attractive shoreline is essentially walled off for private use.

They rattled off a list of approaches that have been taken to squeeze access, and then we donned masks and got into Micele’s beige, 2017 Chrysler Pacifica to take a tour of the practices the driver said are being implemented to keep “us peons off their beaches.”

They said elected officials are bowing to the desires of wealthy property owners at the expense of the public.

Micele, a New Jersey native who moved to Westerly nine years ago, said the modus operandi is to not allow parking near shoreline rights of way. In Watch Hill, for example, the trio noted that where public access is available, signs are plastered about that say no parking, stopping or standing, thereby making it illegal to even drop someone off at a coastal right of way. The fine is $150, more than many tickets issued for speeding through the affluent coastal neighborhood.

In the rare instances where free shoreline parking is available in Westerly, it is often limited to 30 minutes.

“People can park in front of my home, but not in front of shoreline homes,” said Micele, noting that on Sundays the streets and roads around Watch Hill Chapel on Bluff Avenue are lined with parked cars that don’t get ticketed. “Why can’t I park there on a Monday?”

A growing number of security guards and signs warning “No Parking,” “No Trespassing,” “Cameras In Use,” and “Private Residents Only” are posted along the roads, streets, and pathways that lead to some of the most desirable stretches of Westerly’s coastline. Fences, boulders, and vegetation are used to mark territory, even if they infringe upon a public right.

This pile of boulders next to a home on East Beach warns beachgoers that someone else owns access to the shoreline here.

“Private Property No Trespassing” is painted in red on a pile of rocks next to a home on East Beach. A sign posted roughly 50 feet from about a dozen public parking spots at well-guarded Weekapaug Beach alerts anglers, clammers, and walkers that the snack bar is only for guests of Weekapaug Inn and the Weekapaug, Shelter Harbor, and Shady Harbor communities. The free public parking spots are often used by inn guests and fire district residents.

A public access point at the north end of Waters Edge Road in Watch Hill is blocked by a fence and overgrown vegetation. At the road’s south end, there is public access and a grant-funded kayak rack, but parking anywhere near the right of way is prohibited.

The trio noted there is limited access to Quonochontaug Pond, a coastal lagoon in Westerly and Charlestown, despite the fact taxpayer money is used to dredge the waterbody behind the barrier beach that is off limits to the public for most of the summer.

At the Quonochontaug Breachway, also known as the Quonnie Breachway, they said a fence blocks access to the ocean side of the jetty.

At East Beach, parking is severely limited. According to the Weekapaug Fire District’s 2022 beach regulations, the district owns East Beach, as well as Fenway Beach, and they are for the “benefit and use” of the district’s property owners and their guests.

At Watch Hill Beach, it can cost up to $50 to park and it costs $12 per adult and $6 for children 3 and older to access the beach. Parking for Napatree Point can also be pricey, at least for beachgoers who don’t come by water.

King has lived in Bradford, a historic district in the towns of Westerly and Hopkinton, for 35 years. He said the local squeeze on public access began three decades ago and has recently picked up the pace.

“Access keeps getting tighter and tighter,” he said. “It gets more restrictive as the years go by.”

Contrata, who grow up in Ledyard, Conn., spent the late 1970s and early ’80s as a teenager exploring the Westerly coastline. She said much of the access she enjoyed as a teen has disappeared.

Micele said government-subsidized flood insurance and federal grants to raise coastal homes are taxpayer funded, “but we can’t get access to what we pay for.”

“There’s parking but no access and access with no parking,” he said. “That’s basically what we have in Westerly. All these beautiful beaches that nobody can get on.”

The contentious issue of shoreline access, however, isn’t limited to Rhode Island’s most southerly town. The matter has generated plenty of public interest during the past few years. A special House commission was even created to study the issue.

The Rhode Island Constitution guarantees the right to passage along the coast, but it doesn’t say the public has the right to walk across the shore above the mean high-water line or on private property to get there — the issue at the heart of the Spring Avenue Extension matter and one the House study commission was created to address.

The 12-member shoreline access study commission produced a bill (H8055A) that would have allowed residents to walk along the shoreline 6 feet landward from the identifiable seaweed line. The bipartisan legislation easily passed the House, but never received a committee hearing from the Senate Judiciary Committee. Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, D-North Providence, didn’t support the bill.