Restoring town’s beach access points is a painstaking — and sometimes confounding — job

Restoring town’s beach access points is a painstaking — and sometimes confounding — job


WESTERLY — What good is an approved access point to the shoreline if nobody knows it is there? That’s a question members of the Conservation Commission have been asking about three rights of way on Atlantic Avenue.

The access points are within a roughly 650-foot-long stretch of Atlantic Avenue between the Town Beach, also known as the old town beach, and the Weekapaug Breachway. The commission has been trying to bring the “missing” rights of way back into use since 2010. It’s a process that has turned commission members into amateur detectives, trying to decipher and track antiquated marking systems involving numbered utility poles. An early numbering sequence gave way to a different sequence, leaving commission members to rely on documents that at times use one or the other or both systems. A close inspection of some of the poles reveals the new numbers and remnants of the old ones. For instance, Right of Way A10 used to be adjacent to Pole 166, which more recently is described as Pole 39.

The three rights of way are designated by the state Coastal Resources Management Council but have been listed as being under appeal since at least 2004. Under state law, CRMC has the authority to establish clear, legally defined paths or easements to the shore to give the public a means to enjoy the area below the mean high water mark, which is protected for public use by the state Constitution. But unlike many other shoreline rights of way in Westerly, these three are not marked with signs or crosswalks.

“How are you going to get to the beach if nobody knows how to get there?” asked Joseph MacAndrew, Conservation Commission chairman, during a recent interview and tour of the area.

The confusion surrounding the numbering system is compounded by the Public Access to the Rhode Island Coast Guide, published in 2004 by CRMC, Rhode Island Sea Grant, and the University of Rhode Island, which assigns three numbers to each right of way.

The Conservation Commission’s work to establish CRMC Right of Way A10 for use by the public has moved along smoothly. A surveyor hired by the commission established the boundaries and the path is now marked with orange paint that circles pins sunk along the edge of the road. “This would be a good spot for a loading and unloading zone and maybe a bike rack,” MacAndrew said.

But the commission has encountered resistance from property owners. The owners of 567 Atlantic Ave., which is adjacent to CRMC Right of Way A8, refused to allow the surveyor onto the property to survey the seaward side of the right of way, claiming the right of way had been “extinguished,” MacAndrew said. But Laura Dwyer, a CRMC spokeswoman, said “a private owner/entity or municipality cannot extinguish or abandon a right-of-way that is a recorded CRMC right of way (in the town land evidence records) without petitioning the CRMC Council.” Dwyer said she would inform the CRMC’s legal counsel of the situation.

The Horner Family Limited Partnership claims the A8 right of way was extinguished by virtue of an administrative subdivision approved by the Planning Board in 2013. In an email to MacAndrew, Town Attorney Matthew Oliverio said the property owner “has no authority to extinguish an easement with a swipe of the pen.” Oliverio also said he had contacted the property owner’s lawyer and informed him that the town would be forced to seek resolution of the dispute in court if his client did not cooperate. Jack Payne, the Horner Family Limited Partnership’s lawyer, could not be reached for comment for this article.

The Conservation Commission will likely not pursue trying to make the third missing right of way, A12, passable. The area is covered with a swampy vegetated wetlands near the roadway. Closer to the beach, MacAndrew said, it appears a tall berm, now covered with heavy vegetation, was constructed. He estimated it would cost as much as $40,000 to clear the area, a process he said would likely require CRMC approval because of the wetlands.

A resident of the town since 1985 and an avid fisherman, MacAndrew said he has witnessed access to the shoreline in the town shrink over the years. “The rights of way are disappearing,” he said.

John Ornberg, a long-time resident, agreed, saying he recalled a time, in the 1960s, when rights of way on Atlantic Avenue were more plentiful. “They used to be every 1,000 feet,” he said.

Another close observer of shoreline access issues, George Markham, said he was pleased that the Conservation Commission had its eyes on Atlantic Avenue and the Misquamicut area rather than focusing solely on Watch Hill.

“I’m surprised they didn’t make Atlantic Avenue their first priority,” Markham said.

The commission has also worked for improved shoreline access in Watch Hill. Markham questioned the focus on Watch Hill, where he said rights of way are largely accessible and visitors are allowed to use most of East Beach despite private ownership. He also noted the availability of a small amount of free parking in Watch Hill but said there is none in Misquamicut.

The Conservation Commission’s work has also included surveying Right of Way A14 in Avondale, next to the Lotteryville Marina. The commission had a parking area for two vehicles constructed at the spot that gives access, for boats and canoes, to the Pawcatuck River. MacAndrew views the Lotteryville right of way as a success story and as an example of what the commission would like to accomplish at other access points to the shore.

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