standing Westerly Town Hall

WESTERLY — The town's list of rights-of-way or paths to the shoreline will be two shorter now that town officials have determined the Weekapaug Fire District owns the property.

In question is actually a single path that the town had listed as two paths, indicating each side as separate rights-of-way, adjacent to a house at 21 Spray Rock Road, plus several parking spaces that were the subject of discussion last spring and earlier this summer. The path is also known as "Spring Avenue,"  "Spring Avenue Extension" and "Spring Lane." The fire district had blocked access to the parking spaces, but town officials reclaimed the parking spaces.

During a meeting Monday, the Town Council heard from fishermen who asked that the path in question remain listed as a public right-of-way, saying it has long been used to get to the shoreline. Earlier in the summer, residents told the council they had also routinely used the path but had recently been confronted by fire district security workers and told the path was private property.

On Monday, after also hearing from a lawyer for the Weekapaug Fire District and the town attorney, council members agreed the path is private property and should not be listed as a public right-of-way in the Comprehensive Plan.

Members of the Rhode Island Mobile Sportfishermen club said the path had been used for decades.

"We would like to see it continue as a right-of-way and also be involved and participate in the process," said James Milardo, a longtime member of the club.

Jean Gagnier, a former member of the Town Council, advocated leaving the path listed as a public right-of-way, saying the public had used the path for many years.

Erik Rogde, president of the club, questioned the legal research town officials used to determine the property is owned by the fire district.

"The attorney client memorandum doesn't seem so black and white to me. It seems there was an intent to have this be public [property]," Rogde said.

Rogde was referring to a memorandum from Town Attorney William Conley Jr. and his associate, Kyla Pecchia. The memorandum states that Conley's office had received "no additional information that contradicts" a previous legal opinion rendered by Attorney Charles Soloveitzik in 2008. Soloveitzik, who had been consulted by former Town Attorney Steven Hartford, found "conflicting evidence for the proposition that Spring Lane is a public/town road or public right-of-way to the ocean."

Soloveitzik wrote that his research found that owners of the property intended to dedicate it as a road for public use when they recorded a real estate plat in 1920, but that it was not clear the town ever accepted it and that subsequent actions by the property owners indicated they only intended for owners of property depicted in the 1920 plat to use the road or right-of-way. Soloveitzik also wrote that the path appeared to be blocked with vegetation. Similar observations of the vegetation have been made recently.

On Monday, Thomas J. Liguori Jr., the lawyer who represents the Weekapaug Fire District, said plats recorded subsequent to the one from 1920 bore the signature of town officials signing off on the proposition that Spring Lane was intended for use only by owners of property in the adjacent area, not the public.

"The question of why it keeps coming up, that is the same question that my client has, because every time it comes up the law and the research is confirmed, and then a few years later the faces change and it's pushed that it's best to be examined again, but we hope it's conclusive this time," Liguori said.

A Watch Hill right-of-way, at the end of Waters Edge Road, that is certified by the state Coastal Resources Management Council also received the attention of the Town Council on Monday. Town Manager J. Mark Rooney said the town would have to apply to CRMC to remove material that was placed to obstruct use of the right-of-way.

"We need a permit to correct what has been done to limit access to that right-of-way," Rooney said.

Specifically, Rooney said, boulders and pieces of cement were dropped into the water.

Thomas McAndrew, a lawyer who represents property owners on Waters Edge Road, encouraged the town to apply to CRMC for a permit, saying it would give his clients an opportunity to inform CRMC of their concerns about disturbing the right-of-way. The residents have several reports written by environmental and land-use experts, McAndrew said. He also noted there are several other rights-of-way in the town that allow for access to the water.

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