WESTERLY — The seemingly perennial issues of parking in Watch Hill and whether full-time residents should enjoy certain benefits, such as the ability to purchase a Town Beach parking pass, that non-resident property owners who pay taxes cannot are before the Town Council again.
The council, during its Oct. 7 meeting, discussed a proposal to limit the sale of parking passes for the Town Beach to permanent residents only as well as a slight increase in the cost of the permits. Permanent residency would be established by presenting a driver's license and current motor vehicle registration.
Also discussed was a proposal to limit access to parking permits for 13 spaces on Larkin Road in Watch Hill to permanent residents. That proposal, which drew criticism from a Watch Hill official, eventually morphed into doing away with the permits altogether and opening the spaces up to the general public. Under the existing system, the permits are available to Westerly property owners, regardless of permanent residency. Permit-holders are allowed to park in the spaces for up to three hours from Memorial Day to Oct. 15.
Town Manager J. Mark Rooney said both the beach parking pass and the Larkin Road proposals were an effort to "clarify so the bureaucracy is easy to understand" and reduce the amount of time that workers in the town clerk's and tax collector's offices spend on the passes.
"We have a great deal of back and forth on who is eligible for a Larkin Road pass," Rooney said.
Town Clerk Donna Giordano said her staff welcomed the change. Between beach parking passes, which can be used for Larkin Road parking, and Larkin Road parking permits themselves, town hall staff issued 4,000 permits for the 2019 beach season, officials said.
Members of the Town Council approved by consensus the beach pass proposal and decided to continue discussing the Larkin Road plan. Some members of the Town Council proposed doing away with the Larkin Road parking permit program altogether and making the now-reserved spaces available to the general public on a first-come, first-served basis.
Randy Abood, Watch Hill Fire District moderator, questioned the reason for changing the Larkin Road permit program during the Oct. 7 meeting and again on Oct. 14 during a discussion with The Sun.
"I don't understand the rationale behind it. I think you're sending the wrong message to people who do pay taxes here — that you can't park here when that right had been given to them for all these years," Abood said during the Oct. 7 meeting.
On Monday Abood repeated his concerns.
"Watch Hill is Westerly and Westerly is Watch Hill," Abood said. "Why would you remove something that has been in place for so long? It's a very nice benefit for our taxpayers. If it's to ease the administrative burden, find a different way to solve the problem."
Council President Christopher Duhamel asked whether the council possesses the legal authority to differentiate which residents can use public parking spaces.
"I think we should have a [legal] basis for that," Duhamel said. Town Attorney William Conley Jr. said he would provide the council with a memorandum reviewing the applicable laws.
The Larkin Road parking permit program was put in place, according to Giordano, when a member of the Town Council wanted to provide parking on the road for "Westerly residents" who complained they were not able to get access to beaches in Watch Hill because they could not find a parking place.
"The intent was not for everyone but for Westerly residents only. When we started we got a lot of complaints from people who were not residents. Then we amended it to allow taxpayers as well. Now the idea has shifted back to Westerly residents only," Giordano said.
Councilor Caswell Cooke Jr. suggested doing away with the Larkin Road parking permits.
"It's so much of a headache to issue 2,000 stickers for  spaces with the amount of time it's taking the people in the Town Hall to do that and verify that," Cooke said.
Cooke also noted that Watch Hill Fiire District taxpayers are given access by district permit to the district's parking lots in the village.
Councilor Karen Cioffi agreed with Cooke.
"Issuing those Larkin Road permits is a terrible waste of time," she said. Councilors Suzanne Giorno and Sharon Ahern also agreed.
Councilor William Aiello disagreed.
"I happen to like the program and I know other people do, too," Aiello said.
Aiello said he was also concerned that doing away with the Larkin Road passes would have a detrimental effect on the town's memorandum of agreement with the Watch Hill Fire District. Under the agreement, the fire district has reserved seven parking spots in its Larkin Road parking lots for use by Westerly residents who have a parking permit sticker or beach pass. The agreement also allows drivers to use the lot as a drop-off area and lets residents who are parking to use restrooms in the parking lot.
Aiello noted the memorandum of agreement was reached as a compromise after the Town Council moved close to allowing parking on Bluff Avenue in Watch Hill.
"If we change the stickers, are we losing the agreement for the Larkin Road parking lot? If the agreement goes away we need to put parking on Bluff Avenue," Aiello said.
On Monday Abood said eliminating the Larkin Road permits might have an effect on the agreement for the Larkin Road parking lot.
"It clearly flies in the face of the agreement," Abood said.
The 2019 season was the first full season the memorandum of agreement was in place. Abood said he was concerned that the new Town Council would make changes so soon after the agreement was reached.
"What everybody wants in life is a certain amount of certainty ... it makes me think anything we do is only as good as the next council," Abood said.