Town Beach in Charlestown / Beach

RI - Summer may be over, but the shoreline public access debate is just heating up

Facebook group is leading the charge for access to the beach

Earlier this year, Charlestown seemed to be getting on the right side of the public access issue by adding the relevant section of the state constitution to its town beach signs, while Narragansett became the municipality setting itself up for future confrontations by implementing time limits for parking on Ocean Road. However, after a Town Council Meeting in Westerly on September 11, the sleepy enclave that sometimes plays host to Taylor Swift has quickly moved to the forefront.

The fireworks started the day before when members of the Saving RI Coastal Access/Rights of Way, a 7200-member Facebook group focused solely on the issue, posted a simple statement, “Solicitor Conley needs to resign immediately…” That started a back-and-forth between parties, both insinuating they had inside information, but neither was willing to share, preferring instead to wait for the Monday meeting.

At the meeting, Westerly Harbor Management Commission Chairman Jason Jarvis informed the council that his members had no confidence in Town Solicitor William Conley, a former state senator, and made it clear they hoped the body would find outside council when it comes to matters of rights of way and beach access. If the council refuses to act on Conley, the Harbor Management Commission is united, and Jarvis announced they will resign at Thursday night’s meeting. As of late Wednesday, some of the commission members are rethinking that position, according to Weber.  

Commission member Ben Weber stated, “(We) did solicitor Conley’s work for him. He provided absolutely no research, no documentation, and did no work.” Weber has become an expert researcher after his first run-in with the Weekapaug Fire District over access to Fenway Beach in 2020-21, making dozens of APRA requests and proving the state owns the land within 15-20 feet on either side of the breachway. Now he questions why Conley hasn’t filed motions to dismiss the Watch Hill District and Watch Hill Conservancy’s lawsuit over Fort Road, and the access it provides to Napatree Point.

The origination of the Facebook group is a convergence of several similar occurrences around the same time, all preventing people from accessing the shore in what they thought was their constitutional right. The most famous, or infamous, was in 2019 when Scott Keeley went to gather seaweed on Town Beach in Charlestown, crossed the line into South Kingstown, stopped to rest, and got arrested. Around the same time, the administrator of the group, Conrad Ferla, was giving surfing lessons at Narragansett Beach and got harassed and chased off the beach. And as stated earlier, Weber, who is a native of Weekapaug and regularly fished and surfed at Fenway Beach was confronted in 2020 and denied access to what he considered practically a birthright. Ferla admitted that organizing the group during COVID probably made it easier since the only places to go were online and the beach, and people wanted to ensure their right to access.

Mobilization of the group has never been a problem. Ferla says almost every city and town in the state is represented, and there are 800 members from Connecticut. They have held letter-writing parties to legislators ahead of the hearings for the bills that became state law this year. Members are constantly on the lookout for unmarked rights of way, private property owners acting badly, and public meeting agendas with public access items scheduled. Members have turned out for meetings in Warwick, as well as in Narragansett, North Kingstown, and of course, Westerly. The group has raised funds to fly banners by plane from Westerly to Bonnet Shores after the new law was passed to let property owners and beachgoers know that the shoreline is public, and that it isn’t private.

With the law now passed, Keeley has been able to work with Sen. Victoria Gu to have the Coastal Resources Management Council remove improper signage at the property where he was arrested, and he hopes they can introduce new legislation to streamline the process so enforcement can now be handled locally. Next up, the group expects to relitigate the parking limits imposed along Ocean Road in Narragansett starting next year. Also, Ferla wants to find a solution to the Y-05 right of way in Middletown since the town, CRMC, and Clean Ocean Access all initially didn’t take responsibility. However, word is a surveyor was on-site last week. In Westerly, the public access group is also keeping a close eye on, the right of way at the Sand Trail in Quonochontaug, and the transfer of the Watch Hill Lighthouse property where they are pushing for the town to get involved since the non-profit scheduled to take control is making no commitments to provide shoreline access.

To learn more about the group, visit their Facebook page here.

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