Westerly residents urge town to restore beach access right of ways

Westerly residents urge town to restore beach access right of ways

The Westerly Sun

WESTERLY — More than 100 people, some standing, packed a Westerly Library meeting room Wednesday night to listen and offer insights on access to the local shoreline via paths known as rights of way.

Many rights of way have disappeared or shrunk, residents said. And, the residents said, it’s an arduous task to gain access to the rights of way because of a lack of parking and restrictive traffic laws.

Others in attendance said officials are lax in monitoring and enforcing access to rights of way as well as private property laws.

Town Manager Derrik M. Kennedy said he called the meeting as a means for the town staff to collect information on the location of rights of way and to hear concerns. Town officials distributed a list of 49 designated and potential rights of way in the town. The list includes 11 rights of way approved by the state Coastal Resources Management Council. Many of the others are town roads that go down to the water. Others are paths that the town considers to be rights of way, and some are state-owned land.

CRMC is authorized by state law to research and make final determinations on rights of way throughout Rhode Island. Rights of way that are sanctioned by the council are considered indisputable once appeals, which must be filed within 30 days of the council’s designation, are heard, said Jeff Willis, CRMC deputy director.

Kennedy asked those in attendance to review the list and to submit comments and concerns on forms attached to the list.

“Staff will determine if more meetings are necessary and whether there is anything the town can, or more importantly should, do,” Kennedy said.

John Ornberg, 70, a longtime resident, said many of the rights of way on the list are not currently accessible.

“It’s only going to take another generation or two before this list is going to be down to just one or two unless we seriously address this issue for the right of the public to have access to our shore,” Ornberg said.

Shrubs planted along the Bluff Avenue right of way in Watch Hill, adjacent to Taylor Swift’s house, have narrowed the path, Ornberg said. Another resident said the path was once wide enough to allow for the simultaneous passage of two vehicles.

John Stellitano, who lives on the north side of Atlantic Avenue but is a joint owner of a private beach area on the south side of the road, said town and state officials are “totally confused about arriving at a common definition of how to operate a right of way.” He called for enforcement of private property laws, saying rights of way are intended only to give the public access to the area of the shore below the mean high tide line. Confusion also exists, he said, about whether state or local police should enforce private property laws related to shoreline rights of way.

Stellitano, a former Westerly High School football coach, is a defendant in a beach access case pending before the state Supreme Court.

In that case, initiated by the office of state Attorney General Peter Kilmartin, the state contends that the entire beach area from Westerly Town Beach to the Weekapaug Breachway was dedicated as open to the public by property owners in the 1800s. A Superior Court judge ruled in favor of the defendants, who say the beach is private, but Kilmartin has appealed the decision.

Jim Bedell, of the Rhode Island Shoreline Access Coalition, disputed Stellitano’s interpretation of the law. He said that the public is permitted along a 10-foot wide swath of beach above the high tide.

Several residents said a few of the Atlantic Avenue rights of way are “missing” or no longer visible.

Charles McGrath said the town once erected fences along the Atlantic Avenue rights of way. “Back when there were fences they were quite visible and they were marked very well,” he said.

Joe Horvath, who bought a home in Westerly about one year ago, questioned why parking is prohibited on many Watch Hill Roads. “It’s sad that people who are paying taxes can’t get access with a reasonable walk,” he said.

Hedley Davidson of the Rhode Island Mobile Sports Fishermen said residents in the Weekapaug area sometimes block the club’s ability to reach the beach by erecting fences. He also said that passage on East Beach is sometimes blocked by employees of the Ocean House.

Save the Bay, an environmental advocacy group, is engaged in a study of shoreline public access throughout the state. David Prescott, the organization’s South County coast keeper, said the study is looking at several factors that influence accessibility, including obstructions, dimensions of the rights of way, and overgrowth. Results of the study will be shared with the state and the town, he said.

Matthew Ferraro said that with the number of visitors to East Beach increasing, the town should assist by helping to maintain the beach and with trash removal. He also called for establishment of a “beach commissioner position” — someone who could monitor beach access issues on a regular basis.

Tourists and visitors to the town sometimes relate negative experiences about trying to reach the beaches in the town, said Lisa Konicki, executive director of the Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce. She offered to donate plastic fencing to be used to delineate rights of way, and said that the directors of the the chamber’s foundation would likely support a fundraising initiative aimed at buying bicycle racks to be placed at some rights of way.

“Tourism is a huge part of our local economy so anything that we can do to make their entire experience pleasant, and to not feel harassed after we’ve spent thousands of dollars in marketing to get them here, we would support,” Konicki said.

Joseph MacAndrew, Conservation Commission chairman, asked for the Town Council to review the status of rights of way annually. He also asked for legal research of disputed and no longer discernible Atlantic Avenue rights of way. A standardized plan for rights of way maintenance is also necessary, he said.

George Nicholas, whose family owns the St. Clair Annex restaurant in Watch Hill, suggested studying how other states deal with rights of way. “Why is it so contentious in Rhode Island?” he asked.

Town Councilor Philip Overton called for action, saying the number of accessible rights of way is dwindling. He called for placing portable toilets, garbage receptacles and bicycle racks at the rights of way.

“This has been an ongoing problems and it is getting worse what I would like to see is Westerly become a robust right- to-the-beach town,” Overton said.



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