The neighborhood near the shoreline where the town added parking — and infuriated some residents — is likely not the only place where adjacent property owners have encroached onto the town’s rights-of-way
NARRAGANSETT, R.I. – They offer some of the most gorgeous views of the Rhode Island coast and an ideal place to put in a surfboard or just take a stroll. But in the past few years, the narrow streets off Ocean Road near the tip of Point Judith known as the Avenues have provided something else, too: controversy over shoreline access.
Recent property surveys of some of the roads down there are likely to add fuel to the fire. The surveys, town officials say, show that nearby properties have encroached on the town’s own property for years. Hedges, lawns, plantings, driveways, even some structures – all jutting out into the town’s property.
The town is being sued by property owners in the area after it formally legalized parking there. But some town leaders argue that they were not encroaching on private property when they did so – in fact, it was the property owners who’ve been encroaching all along.
“This now shows that allowing parking on either side of the road is totally viable and within the town’s rights, because it’s the town’s property,” said Jesse Pugh, the Town Council president. “For me, just having these and knowing where those lines are, it’s a huge benefit.”
When you’re talking about shoreline access, often what you’re really talking about is parking. The state can have all the coastal real estate in the world, but if there’s no way to get to it, it serves only people who live nearby.
These local roads in Narragansett put that tension on display. For years, according to locals, they parked along those roads to get to the water. The ends of some of those roads are state-designated public access points.
But in more recent years, as turnover in the neighborhood transformed small cottages into larger and more modern homes, the town started to get complaints. In response, the police started enforcing a parking ban there. Surfers or coast-walkers would get back to their cars to find tickets on their windshield.
In May 2021, responding to outrage, the Town Council passed a law saying that people could indeed park on Pilgrim, Louise and Conant avenues at certain times. The town got sued, with some residents of the neighborhood arguing that the town didn’t do its due diligence and had no rational basis to allow parking there. The town, they also said, was jeopardizing safety.
The surveys showed what people like Councilman Patrick Murray long suspected: The town-owned property extended well beyond the paved road itself, and the nearby private properties had spilled onto areas that the town actually owned. That meant the town was on solid legal ground when it passed a law giving people the right to park there, Murray and others say.
“They complain the roads aren’t safe, they’re too narrow – they’re too narrow because people have encroached on the roadway,” Murray said. “You can’t have it both ways.”
John Mancini, a lawyer for the residents who sued, said the situation is more complicated than it might first appear. After all, it was the town itself, through zoning decisions and building permits, that gave people the right to be where they are. The homeowners relied on that.
“They’ve created this problem,” Mancini said. “Now they they’ve uncovered it and they’re like, ‘Oh, geez, I can’t believe you did this.’”
Mancini said the real motivation behind the survey results is quelling the lawsuit. To Mancini, it’s like a version of, Nice lawn you have there. Would be a shame if someone expanded their street onto it. The neighbors are open to compromise, but they’re trying to protect what they believed they bought into and invested in – while keeping the roadway safe for things like ambulances and firetrucks.
“They feel like they’re being attacked,” Mancini said. “They spend a lot of money in taxes, they bought into something with the understanding of what it is, and now they’re being told it’s something different.”
If the town was going to expand the roadway – nobody on the Council has come out and suggested it so far – it might run into environmental issues, like wetlands protections, Mancini argued. Any action would require more research into what was done when, and how much of the roadway the town actually accepted, Mancini said. As for the survey proving the town’s legal case, as council members argue, Mancini responded by noting that it was done after the lawsuit was filed. “That’s great, but it’s a little late,” he said.
Members of the Town Council, meanwhile, are circumspect about what will come next.
“Going forward, any further actions will need to be discussed and agreed upon by my colleagues on the Council,” said Ewa Dzwierzynski, a councilwoman who supported the survey. “Our goal is to protect the designated (Coastal Resources Management Council) rights of ways in our Town to ensure public access to the shore.”
The neighborhood where the town added parking, meanwhile, is probably not the only place where adjacent property owners have encroached, purposefully or not, onto the town’s right-of-way. The surveys also looked at Bass Rock Road, Newton Avenue and Hazard Avenue, at the end of which are also coastal access points. Those showed encroachment, too.
Pugh, the Town Council president, said the town could take those surveys to improve parking there, too. Though there’s already some parking there, some area homeowners have put rocks at the end of their yards. Now, the town might be able to show that those rocks are actually on the town’s property, and can have them removed.
That is the sort of piecemeal change the town could pursue, while not picking on residents of any one neighborhood, Pugh said. Some people are looking for immediate action in response to the surveys, but that’s not feasible because of decades of permits and approvals that allowed this to happen, he said.
You can’t just reverse that overnight, Pugh said, but you can make changes.
“We’ve been consistently doing our best with improving access,” Pugh said. “We’re going to keep doing that. But we need to be responsible, and we don’t want to let emotions take control.”
By Brian Amaral Globe Staff,Updated July 22, 2022, 5:32 p.m.