NARRAGANSETT – In a victory for surfers, water enthusiasts and coastal access advocates, the Narragansett Town Council Monday night amended its parking ordinance to allow on-street parking in a popular Point Judith neighborhood known for its nearby coastal access points and large swells. Despite some resistance from property owners in the neighborhood, the town council moved ahead with opening up one side of the road on select streets for public parking in a unanimous vote.
“People are parking on these side streets right now,” said Narragansett Town Council President Jesse Pugh. “It’s happening and they’re getting ticketed for it sometimes. We can fix that problem right now by saying it’s legal to park on one side of the road on three streets.”
The issue stems from a parking restriction on both sides of Conant Avenue and Pilgrim Avenue in a Point Judith neighborhood known for its three state-mandated public access points to the ocean. While the local ordinance restricting parking in the area has been in place since 1976, according to users of the access points, it has not been enforced consistently until 2019, when Narragansett Police began distributing $35 citations and tickets to those parked illegally along the roads after complaints came in from area homeowners regarding parked vehicles. According to users of the public right-of-way points, surfers have accessed the ocean at these spots for over 60 years. Parking was previously restricted on both sides of the street, however, due to the narrowness of the roads in question — they are small side streets in a coastal neighborhood — and concerns about emergency vehicle access.
Throughout the debate Monday night, which lasted nearly four hours, surfers and coastal access advocates asserted that access was meaningless without parking, that surfers had utilized the area for generations and that parking had only recently become an issue, while area property owners argued that along with parking comes behavior such as littering, vandalism, ecological harm, drinking, loudness and surfers changing into wetsuits and argued that those looking to utilize the access points could park elsewhere. In recent years, the neighborhood has seen an increase in the amount of large, luxurious ocean-front homes being built, and outside of its local nuances, the issue can be seen as a classic struggle of public access to the ocean versus private property owners seeking to maintain a high-quality neighborhood and control of the shoreline.
“In having access with no parking, it feels like we’re trying to be like Connecticut,” said resident Mary Nadeau, who said she formerly owned a house on Pilgrim Avenue and that enforcement of parking restrictions there and nearby were a recent trend. “We have all these neighborhoods that are exclusive and people saying ‘you can have access to the ocean but you can’t park anywhere near my house.’ That’s just not the way we have it set up in Rhode Island. You need to have parking available for people.”
“This entire area is really a fragile ecosystem,” said Sydney Gozzi, a resident who lives in the neighborhood. “To toss around gravel and allow people to park wherever they want is really doing a disservice to Rhode Island. While I appreciate everyone wants the convenience of their car, it is not a very long walk from [other parking options outside the neighborhood].”
“We clean up the graffiti that is spray painted on the rocks, we clean up the trash.” Gozzi continued. “It is our obligation to make sure that this is a viable place for everyone. It’s not that we want to keep the neighborhood private and safe, there’s just nowhere to keep your cars.”
The motion was originally proposed with wording that would have allowed the development of 22 graveled parking spots along Nichols, Louise and Pilgrim Avenues, which was shot down by the previous town council. Ultimately, however, the proposal was amended to allow parking on one side of Conant, Louise and Calef Avenues.
For years, a peaceful coexistence between surfers and the neighborhood was in place, and there are those who own property in the area that voiced their support for public access and parking. According to Narragansett Police Chief Sean Corrigan, complaints from property owners in the neighborhood regarding illegal parking began trending upward in 2019 and reached a high point last year. Meanwhile, other property owners in the neighborhood testified to the character of the surfers and water enthusiasts while acknowledging that some problematic behavior occurs.
“I would say people are generally respectful,” said Christine Morgan, a resident of Calef Avenue. “There are people who park on my lawn and rip it up. I don’t call the police. I don’t complain. I don’t appreciate it, but there are issues like that.”
“I’m a proponent of a balanced solution for fair and free access with respect to a peaceful existence and safety of the residents,” said Bill Cherella, a resident of Calef Avenue who previously offered to allow surfers and water enthusiasts to park on a lot he owned in the neighborhood. “I do have an issue with widening the access. For someone who lives here full-time, who works from home, I’ve had a bird’s eye view because of COVID and I can tell you [this issue] has two sides. For 12 years I’ve successfully coexisted and very few tickets were issued. But that said, there are things that aren’t trivial like [surfers changing into wetsuits], trash, speeding, setting car alarms off and slamming doors early in the morning… I support some sort of a compromise on the side roads.”
After comments from the public, councilor Patrick Murray, a sponsor of the motion and coastal access advocate who had kept silent throughout the meeting, raised his voice and spoke at length to the issue.
“It’s this council’s duty to protect these access points, period,” he said. “Most of these complaints were from people who don’t live here.”
Murray, without using names, then read off a list from a number of property owners in the neighborhood who had corresponded with the council and also resided in Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Hampshire.
“They may have owned the property for years, but most of the complaints are from people who don’t live here year-round,” he said. “That’s what the problem has been since I’ve been on this council — previous councils are more worried about people who don’t live here full-time than those that do.”
Pugh noted that changing the current ordinance to allow for parking on both sides of the streets would allow for more opportunity as opposed to 22 dedicated spots. Murray insisted that those who spoke out against the motion simply did not want parking in the neighborhood, stating that widening the road and allowing for on-street parking would alleviate any potential safety issues with emergency vehicles.
Murray was initially against this uniform proposal from Pugh, stating that the next council could easily reverse the change if property owners in the area voiced complaints as opposed to the 22 dedicated, graveled parking spaces. Council president pro tem Susan Cicilline Buonanno said she supported coastal access and parking, but added she was hesitant about some of the areas outlined in the motion for parking, and then supported Pugh’s amendment.
Pugh eventually proposed amending the motion to change the existing parking ordinance to allow parking on the south side of Conant and Louise Avenues from Ocean Road to the end of the access point and Calef Avenue, respectively, and on the north side of Pilgrim Avenue from Ocean Road to the access point of the ocean and to explore adding crushed stone, where appropriate, at specific spots along these roads. Murray backed the motion and made the official amendment.
Cicilline Buonanno floated adding a “dawn to dusk” provision for the spots. Town staff said the specificity about the time limit attached to the spots could be amended at a later date.
In recognition of the amendment, Pugh opened the floor again for public comment, where property owners in the neighborhood decried the changes that would theoretically allow for more parking in comparison to the original motion of 22 spaces.
This is going to be what? Double, triple that? We’re going the entire length of these streets now,” said Joe Gozzi, a resident. “I don’t understand how something that was considered an overreach with 22 spots is now going to result in however many spots.”
Gozzi also took aim at Murray’s comments calling them “local racism” to which Murray scoffed. Gozzi also said he was personally offended by Murray’s words.
Other property owners in the area joined in the sentiment, stating other councilors had allowed Murray to bully them, though it was Pugh who originally proposed the idea to amend the motion to allow parking on one side of the streets. Later, resident Win Hames championed Murray’s rhetoric, stating he was in support of it “100 percent.” Resident Al Alba also backed Murray and councilors later chimed in that they could not be bullied and they supported parking and access in the area.
While the new council, in its first meeting, unanimously passed many motions to reverse the decisions of the previous council related to the new library, which was backed by affirmative votes from the electorate to move the project forward, Monday night’s dialogue represented the first time the new council was tackling a nuanced issue without a clear, tangible direction from constituents. In his role as president, Pugh heard out the public (including a second time after the motion was amended), wrangled impassioned council members and kept discussion on point.
Ultimately, the town council unanimously approved the amended motion to allow for parking on one side of the three streets — Conant, Louise and Calef Avenues.