No beach fee hike

A scene from Misquamicut State Beach last July. In Westerly, the issue of beach parking rates is entwined with concerns over adequate funding for maintenance and trash collection. The Department of Environmental Protection’s policy of asking beachgoers to tote out their own trash led to problems last summer, and the Misquamicut Business Association ultimately paid for installation of a large garbage bin in the parking lot. Harold Hanks, The Westerly Sun

A decision not to raise beach parking fees in Rhode Island has at least one Westerly town official concerned that the state may not continue a trash collection and removal system that was started last summer at Misquamicut State Beach.

Members of the region's legislative delegation said they were less concerned with that possibility and would  continue to advocate for properly funding the facility, which is a key part of Westerly's tourism economy.

Gov. Gina Raimondo proposed the higher fees at state beaches and campsites in an effort to add staffing and improve maintenance in the parks system. But on Monday state officials said the proposed beach fee increase had been dropped.

"I'm disappointed but I understand the politics of it, most Rhode Island residents were probably not wild about a fee increase," said Caswell Cooke Jr., executive director of the Misquamicut Business Association and a member of the Westerly Town Council.

Cooke, on Tuesday, said he had hoped the extra funds generated by the proposed fee increase would have allowed the state to implement a pilot program to better manage trash collection and parking at the state beach. State officials discussed the pilot program during a meeting at Westerly Town Hall in February. The pilot program would have expanded on a Department of Environmental Management-approved initiative last summer that included placement of a large trash receptacle in the state beach parking lot. Statewide news accounts had called attention to an intense litter problem at the beach and the surrounding area during the summer.

Cooke's business association paid for the receptacle, monitored it throughout the summer, and was reimbursed with a $5,000 legislative grant secured by state Sen. Dennis Algiere, R-Westerly. "It worked but it was a temporary measure for one summer," Cooke said Tuesday.

On Tuesday Algiere said he and state Rep. Sam Azzinaro, D-Westerly, worked on the trash issue throughout the winter and continue to do so during the General Assembly's current session. The two are scheduled to meet with DEM officials next week. 

Algiere said he had spoken with DEM Director Janet Coit on Tuesday, and she told him that her department plans to work with the town and the MBA on the trash issue. "DEM does not want a repeat of what happened at the beach at the start of the season last summer," Algiere said.

While it is unclear if the pilot program will be rolled out because the parking fee increase proposal has been dropped, Algiere said Coit plans to seek additional funds for maintenance at all state parks through the state budget process.

State Reps. Brian Patrick Kennedy, D-Westerly, and Blake Filippi, R-Block Island, are also involved in the effort to address the trash problem, Algiere said.

Azzinaro, on Tuesday, took exception to remarks Cooke had made during a Westerly Town Council meeting a night earlier. Cooke questioned what the local state lawmakers were doing and why they had not responded to a council resolution announcing support of the proposal to increase parking rates and other fees at the state beaches and parks.

"As soon as I received the resolution I went to see the speaker. He said there was no way we were going to raise the rates. I told him we've been working on traffic, trash and maintenance of buildings at the beach. He said it might be possible to find additional funds through the budget process," Azzinaro said. "It's not like we're sitting on our hands doing nothing."

Azzinaro noted that the size of the DEM staff had shrunk over the course of the last 25 years. "People retire and they're not being replaced. It makes it very difficult to maintain everything we have. We need to keep these things up, especially down at Misquamicut. We've got large numbers of people visiting from Connecticut and Massachusetts. It should look good for our visitors and tourists," Azzinaro said.

State lawmakers had quickly moved to thwart the proposal to raise beach parking rates. A bill was introduced with the support of House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello to maintain current rates for the next three summers.

On Monday DEM said it was now proceeding with just the proposed fee increases for campgrounds and other park rentals, such as equestrian areas and picnic tables. Doing so would shift the burden for maintaining these sites from state taxpayers to the users and bring the fee structure more in line with other public and private campgrounds. Coit said that the controversy about the parking rates detracted from the larger goals of celebrating and supporting state parks and beaches.

Two-thirds of campers are from out of state and fees haven't risen since 2002, according to the department.

Raimondo has said that long-term investments are needed in the state parks system because of budget and staffing cuts at the department in recent years, combined with increased visitor use, longer seasons, aging facilities and expanded responsibilities. She wants to add $1.5 million to the department's parks division for eight new employees.

A public hearing is scheduled for April 2 on the camping fee increases. If approved through the rule-making process, the new fee structure would be applicable to new reservations.

This article contains a report from the Associated Press.

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