By DALE P. FAULKNER
Sun Staff Writer
WESTERLY — A move to ban parking on the main route to Watch Hill is another effort to close the village to the public, says a business owner whose family connection to the area goes back more than seven decades.
George Nicholas, who along with his wife, Joann, and their son, James, owns St. Clair Annex on Bay Street, said that while he understands the safety-related argument for implementing a parking ban on Watch Hill Road, parking in the village is steadily disappearing.
“They used to try to keep the public out by restricting beach access, but there’s always such a hue and cry when they try that so now they’ve turned to reducing parking,” Nicholas said.
A public hearing on a proposed ordinance that would establish a no parking zone on Watch Hill Road, from Avondale Road’s southern intersection with Watch Hill Road, to Watch Hill Road’s intersection with Westerly Road, is scheduled for Monday at Town Hall at 7 p.m. Violators of the ordinance would be subject to having their vehicles towed away.
Chief of Police Edward St. Clair said an apparent oversight in the town’s code of ordinances currently allows parking on the road. He discovered the problem a few weeks ago after patrol officers reported about 50 cars parked on the road on a Saturday. St. Clair said his first inclination was to order the officers to ticket the cars, but he checked the ordinance and discovered that parking is allowed on the road. The pattern of parking on the road has continued on weekends through the summer, St. Clair said.
“I’ve never seen this problem before,” St. Clair said, adding that it appears people are parking on the road and then walking to East Beach.
Parking on the road creates hazards for the many walkers, joggers, and bicyclists who use the road, a portion of which includes a bicycle lane, St. Clair said. Additionally, cars parked on the road obscure visibility and sightlines for residents trying to get out of their driveways and onto the road, he said.
Nicholas, whose grandparents opened the popular ice cream shop and restaurant in the late 1930s, said the availability of parking in the village has steadily decreased in recent years. “There’s a certain element in the Watch Hill Fire District that basically doesn’t want people visiting Watch Hill. They don’t want to deal with the traffic on the way to the club or wait in line for their ice cream. To me it’s boorish, selfish and greedy,” he said.
The diminishing number of parking spaces, Nicholas said, is partially due to an enlargement of parking spaces on Bay Street as part of an ongoing streetscape improvement project. By enlarging the spaces the total number of spaces shrunk, he said. He also noted that a parking lot on Larkin Road, acquired by the Westerly Fire District last year, now has fewer spaces available for the public because some spaces are reserved for private use.
Charles “Sandy” Whitman III, Watch Hill Fire District moderator, was angered by Nicholas’ statements and rejected them all.
“He’s being silly, the ordinance is an attempt to address a safety problem. That’s all it is,” Whitman said. “He’s trying to bring more people to his business.”
Motorists started parking on the road following the fire district’s annual meeting on July 12, Whitman said. District residents attending the meeting parked on the road as they always do for the annual meting, but at the conclusion of the meeting district officials observed a host of other cars, with out-of-state license plates, parked on the road, he said.
Whitman met recently with St. Clair to discuss the parking situation. Whitman and St. Clair both recalled two fatal accidents that occurred on the road within the last four years. St Clair said the danger posed by cars parking on the side of the road is exacerbated by the fact that the state recently widened the bicycle lane, leaving less room for vehicles.
Nicholas should be grateful that the fire district now owns the Larkin Road lot, ensuring it will not be developed for a different use, Whitman said. He said 15 of the 102 spaces in the lot are rented to Taylor Swift for her security guards and to the Ocean House. Six parking spaces were lost as part of the Bay Street project, Whitman said.
Whitman dismissed Nicholas’ theory that the fire district has tried to limit access to beaches. “We have no power to do that. Beach access is a state issue. It’s just not true, any of it,” Whitman said.
He summarized Nicholas’ assertions as “a conspiracy theory” shot through with an “Obama class argument.”
“He thinks it’s the rich people trying to keep the poor people out of town. There’s something wrong with me because I have a nice house. It’s not true, there is no conspiracy,” Whitman said.
In Nicholas’ view, the effort to keep “the average Joe” out of Watch Hill has a long history. He pointed to “a long battle” waged by the Watch Hill Business Association to get public restrooms in the village about 15 years ago as an example. The restrooms were finally approved and built once a few district officials relented and showed support for the project, he said.
“It’s a beautiful place. I want people, all people, to be able to enjoy it and walk around or go the beach,” Nicholas said.