Record shows a pattern of thwarting public use of Napatree
Record shows a pattern of thwarting public use of Napatree
September 1, 2013 01:00AM
By Randall Saunders
Since I was one of the “small minority” that presented the public dock idea to the Harbor Commission, and since that idea was recently discussed in your newspaper (Aug. 22, “Protecting the Point” and Aug. 24, “Napatree easement wins OK”), I feel I should try to explain my reasoning to the general public.
I’m a Watch Hill taxpayer who did not support the easement for a simple reason: it took voting power, regarding Napatree’s future, away from its taxpayers.
Those who sponsored the easement, and those who voted for it, may feel confident that this is a positive measure that will preserve Napatree “as it is.” I’m not so sure.
Can present taxpayers take away the legal voting rights of future taxpayers, in perpetuity?
But, be that as it may, let me be clear: I have nothing against keeping Napatree the way it is. In my view, that could be a good thing, though I feel the reasons for this protection have been overstated and exaggerated. My concern is that “the way it is” may cease to include human visitors (as opposed to birds, foxes, skunks, etc.) one day, and I base this concern on history. I will present a summary of that history below. Some of the dates may not be exact, but the facts are all true.
But, first I would like to explain how the public-dock-on-Napatree idea arose.
Very simply, it arose from the fact that the Watch Hill Fire District had previously rejected any possibility of locating the public dock in Watch Hill Harbor. This is the location that, at one time, had a public dock. Today, there is no public dock of reasonable size in that location, though there is a small dinghy dock that can accommodate a few small boats.
The original proposal to the Watch Hill Fire District in 2007 was for a larger dock that could handle larger boats.
The idea was, and still is, that such a dock would be used mainly for loading and unloading and not for long-term tie-ups. (there is a similar dock in Stonington Harbor).
When that proposal was rejected in 2007, and again through the Harbor Commission, there was only one possible location left near Watch Hill where a public dock might be located, and that was on the town’s lot on Napatree Point. So, this was proposed as a dream-list “prospective idea” that should be studied and considered.
And, though it was discussed, it was finally rejected by the Harbor Commission (not by me, but by the majority) after much lobbying from the Watch Hill Conservancy, an agency that is ever-present at Harbor Commission meetings.
Contrary to how it was presented in The Conservator and The Sun, however, a parking lot and bathrooms were never outlined or discussed. In fact, these items would be impossible to install on Napatree as it is today. The Rhode Island Coastal authorities (Coastal Resources Management Council/Department of Environmental Management) would not allow such structures. The “dream-list proposal” was clearly exaggerated and misrepresented by the Watch Hill Conservancy to win votes.
My main concern was, and is, that without a public dock and without some control over the inland areas of Napatree Point, one day in the future those in control (now the Watch Hill Conservancy) may see fit to further restrict Napatree’s public access and its public use because of “unforeseen circumstances.” If and when that happens, both the general public and the recreational boating industry will be in big trouble.
I base my concerns on the following list of personal and historic facts:
• In 1957, I pitched a tent with friends on Napatree and slept over. Nobody said a word.
• In 1958, I went fishing on Napatree with a friend in a Jeep 4X4. Vehicular access was legal then.
• In 1960, vehicles were banned from Napatree Point and a fence was erected.
• In 1961, visitors were banned from parking along most of Watch Hill’s streets.
• In 1965, The Misquamicut Beach Club paved over Fort Road to create its parking lot.
• In 1968, I refueled my boat at the Watch Hill public dock.
• In 1972, I tied up at the Watch Hill public dock.
• In 1999, The Watch Hill Conservancy was established.
• In 1999, there was no longer a Watch Hill public dock.
• In 1999, one Watch Hill dock was fenced off as “private.”
• In 2001, a bus stop, present for 50 years, was removed from Watch Hill village.
• In 2004, there were 31 footpaths crossing Napatree Point. (I counted them.)
• In 2005, another Watch Hill dock was fenced off as “private.”
• In 2005, dogs were allowed on Napatree Point at any time.
• In 2005, The Watch Hill Conservancy installed a town ordinance that reduced the height of buildings on Bay Street, but nowhere else in Watch Hill. A historical-review ordinance was later added.
• In 2006, a sign was posted on Napatree Point declaring it a “private conservation area” and stating that people could be asked to leave at any time, for any reason.
• In 2007, dogs were no longer allowed on Napatree Point during daytime hours.
• In 2007, a public dock was proposed for Watch Hill Harbor by a group of Watch Hill business owners. It was rejected by the Watch Hill Fire District.
• In 2008, the Westerly Town Council asked the Watch Hill Fire District/Watch Hill Conservancy to take down its “unwelcoming” sign on Napatree. It did so, begrudgingly.
• In 2008, the piping plover project on Napatree was modest and produced few fledglings.
• In 2008, The Westerly Harbor Commission became unethically over-represented by people with interests in Watch Hill Harbor and Little Narragansett Bay. I objected loudly, but I was ignored.
• In 2008, The Watch Hill Conservancy proposed a “conservation easement” over the Watch Hill Fire District-owned areas of Napatree. The easement was voted on by Watch Hill Fire District taxpayers and defeated.
• In 2010, The Watch Hill Conservancy, ever-present at Harbor Commission meetings, proposed a “restricted anchorage area” for Little Narragansett Bay.
• In 2011, Watch Hill Conservancy plover project on Napatree Point had doubled in size. Roped-off areas expanded. Still, plover production was low.
• In 2012, Watch Hill Conservancy-proposed “restricted anchorage area” was wisely rejected by the Harbor Commission.
• In 2013, there are only six footpaths crossing Napatree Point.
• In 2013, The Watch Hill Conservancy again proposed a “conservation easement” over Napatree, citing plans of the Commission’s “small minority” to “develop” Napatree as a key concern. The easement was approved.
In the last 60 years, Watch Hill agencies have never made any significant changes that unconditionally favor or improve public access to the shoreline and the water. Never.
The writer has been a Harbor Commission member since 2006.