GUEST COMMENTARY: Proposal for Bluff Avenue parking would squeeze out chapel-goers

The following letter was sent to the members of the Westerly Town Council.

I am writing in opposition to the proposed ordinance allowing parking on the west side of Bluff Avenue in Watch Hill. My family has lived in the village of Watch Hill for over 50 years, and I am very familiar with the traffic and parking patterns in and around Bluff Avenue. During the season I regularly attend services and events at the Watch Hill Chapel and am familiar with the parking and traffic associated therewith. I know of what I speak.

To correct the record, the Westerly town engineer’s memo dated Monday, March 12, states that it does not appear that the chapel has any off-street parking, unless they have an agreement with the Ocean House. Clearly the town engineer hasn’t done her due diligence on this. While I’m not aware of any agreement with the Ocean House, the chapel has had, for many decades, off-street parking for patrons: the grass lot to the left of the chapel. This is nothing new and should be well known to anyone who has any knowledge of the area, particularly during the busy summer season.

Second, despite the off-street parking, chapel patrons typically fill up the grass lot quickly, and the overflow parks on Bluff Avenue exactly where formal parking spots are now being proposed. (When there is overflow, I believe that the chapel is required to hire a police officer to control traffic, due to the resulting congestion in that area of both vehicles and pedestrians.) If parking along Bluff Avenue is utilized by visitors to the area, where will people attending events at the chapel park? If parking for chapel patrons becomes more problematic than it currently is, those folks will be disinclined to attend whatever the event is at the chapel. Just like with parking for other facilities, if it becomes a big enough hassle, it will deter people. Does the Town of Westerly want to adopt a deterrent to folks looking to attend services, weddings, and the like at the chapel? Does the Town of Westerly want to see the chapel vacant, because only those few patrons fortunate enough to be ambulatory and within walking distance will be able to attend events at the chapel. If folks pulling up for an event at the chapel encounter all the spots on Bluff Avenue filled up (and the grass lot full, which happens quickly), where do they park? Just like other visitors to the area, they will be forced to drive around and around the village hoping and waiting for a spot to open. What about handicapped patrons coming to the chapel? There are no spots in the proposed ordinance earmarked for handicapped parking for the chapel.

For generations, the chapel has been an important, vital part of the fabric of the Westerly community, for religious services, weddings, memorial services and other community gatherings. The town should reject the proposed ordinance or there will be adverse consequences seriously impacting all looking to attend the various events hosted at the chapel during the season.

Third, the proposed ordinance should be rejected because it will merely serve to codify and create permanent traffic and pedestrian hazards on Bluff Avenue. As it is, Bluff Avenue gets congested when there is an event at the chapel; however, as mentioned, a police officer is engaged (likely at the expense of the chapel) to monitor and protect pedestrians and traffic alike. If this ordinance somehow gets adopted, will the town hire and station on Bluff Avenue an officer to protect and direct pedestrians and vehicles, like the chapel does? When cars are parked on the street for events at the chapel, which only happens twice on Sundays during the season and sporadically on other days and times, cars traveling on that side of Bluff Avenue must cross over the center line to avoid hitting the parked cars. It’s far from ideal, but it’s the only solution for the chapel and it only happens a few times a week for an hour or two, with an officer stationed. The proposed ordinance will surely result in all those spots on Bluff Avenue being filled early on a sunny, summer day — and will stay filled throughout the beach day. The resulting hazards will be in place all day, every sunny summer beach day, thereby greatly increasing the likelihood of accidents and injuries. Even without parking for an event at the chapel, Bluff Avenue currently gets very busy with vehicles and pedestrians. It would be foolish to allow parking all along Bluff Avenue all day, every day.

There is no doubt but that parking in the village on a nice summer weekend can be challenging. Things have only gotten worse over the years as the area has become more and more popular with out of town visitors. However, everyone — including this Town Council — must accept the simple fact that there is only so much traffic and parking that the village can handle. Part of the charm of Watch Hill is that it isn’t paved over by vast parking lots or, worse yet, developed with parking garages. That is not the way the village has ever been and it’s precisely why the village is so special to and desired by so many.

We all have to make do with the parking that currently exists in the area; it is maxed out and, if this ordinance is passed, the residential area at issue will be greatly impacted. Parking for the chapel will be squeezed and residents who — for generations — have attended important and meaningful events at the chapel, will be left with no place to park.

Peter J. Brockmann is the president of the East Beach Association.

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