Watch Hill residents concerned about impact of beach drop-off zones

Watch Hill residents concerned about impact of beach drop-off zones

The Westerly Sun

WESTERLY — A lawyer who represents two Watch Hill residents says the law of unintended consequences could come to haunt the Town Council if it moves ahead with plans to establish loading and unloading zones adjacent to rights of way to the beach.

“It may have the exact opposite effect of what they intend to do. This could easily lead to people cordoning off the beach above the mean high water mark,” the lawyer, Thomas J. McAndrew, said during an interview Friday.

McAndrew’s clients, Peter H. Dooney and David F. Marquardt, both own property on Ninigret Avenue, not far from a planned unloading zone on Niantic Avenue, adjacent to a right of way to East Beach. The council is also planning an unloading zone next to the Bluff Avenue right of way in Watch Hill, and two in the Misquamicut area. Dooney and Marquardt are worried that the zones will lead to a new influx of people using East Beach, which McAndrew said is private property, despite the property owners’ long-established policy of allowing the public to use it. Dooney and Marquardt are also concerned, McAndrew said, that having unloading zones will make it easier for beachgoers to bring large coolers packed with beer and other alcoholic beverages to the beach.

McAndrew appeared before the Town Council on Monday to raise many of the concerns he discussed during the interview. “I’d like a meeting with them but I haven’t heard from anyone since Monday,” McAndrew said. “I’m hoping to work with the town cooperatively and collaboratively.”

McAndrew also questioned whether the proposed unloading zones are permitted under the town’s zoning, and state Department of Environmental Management and Coastal Resources Management Council regulations. “We’re hoping a committee can be put together with Watch Hill representation. It seems like this has been put on a fast track but not in cooperation with the people who are affected by it,” McAndrew said.

The four zones being pursued by the council were proposed by Town Planner Jason Parker after the council asked him to select a few spots to start the process of establishing unloading zones. Eventually, the council has said, additional zones should also be created. Parker proposed the spots after meeting with police officials and visiting the locations with fire department officials.

McAndrew, who lives in Weekapaug during the summer months, questioned the need for the drop-off zones, noting that there is a public beach area adjacent to the carousel in Watch Hill, as well as on Napatree Point. “We’re trying to keep an open mind and see what the concerns are, but why all of a sudden does someone want to change the residential character of the neighborhood, which has been like this since the 1800s?” McAndrew asked.

On Monday Councilor Jack Carson predicted a difficult summer for the police. He said they’re likely to be inundated with trespass complaints in light of the state Supreme Court’s recent ruling in a beach access case involving a 2.5-mile stretch from the Town Beach to the Weekapaug Breachway. State Attorney General Peter Kilmartin’s office had sued the owners of property along the stretch, arguing that the beach in from of their homes was open to the public. The court ruled against the state, finding he beach is private except for the area below the mean high tide mark. That area, along the entire coastline, is protected by the state Constitution for use by the public.

Council President James Silvestri said the establishment of official unloading zones is intended to improve public safety. “I think everyone has to realize, and certainly the council does, that these drop-off zones were merely intended to be a way of facilitating a safer spot. It’s not like we’re promoting the rights of way, we’re ensuring people have a safe and protected way to drop people off.” Silvestri, during an interview on Friday, said the council will study and get answers for all of the questions and concerns. “The main concerns seem to be an assumption that these zones are parking zones, which they’re not, and that it’s going to increase access through the rights of way, which I think is not true,” Silvestri said.

Like the Watch Hill residents, Silvestri said the council is committed to the towns beaches being safe and family-friendly. “People are going to bring coolers anyway, so it’s important the town holds up its end of the bargain as far as policing. We owe that to the people of Watch Hill,” Silvestri said.

The state Supreme Court’s decision is largely a benefit to the town but some questions persist, Silvestri said.

“Now there’s a definitive description of what’s private and what’s public so that people know there is a difference. The most troublesome part is the enforcement of where that line is,” Silvestri said. He added that the state Constitution can be construed liberally to mean that the public may have a right to do more than the four activities delineated in the document — swim, fish, gather seaweed, and pass along the shore.

McAndrew stressed his hope that the council will work with the residents of Watch Hill. “These people put millions of dollars into the tax base and take nothing in services. These are the most generous types of people who are most likely to provide revenues to the town for the use in schools and elsewhere...if I were in this business I would be trying to cultivate a relationship and work with these people,” McAndrew said.

The council is scheduled to resume is consideration of the unloading zones during its June 5 meeting and may vote on an ordinance, which if approved, would officially establish the zones.


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