NARRAGANSETT – Those attending Narragansett Town Beach next summer will pay $15 to walk on the beach and $20 to park, unless they hold passes exclusive to residents, a Monday night town council vote determined. Those in support of the new fees, which represent an increase over current rates, have said the town beach should prioritize residents, while those opposed have said a balance needs to be struck between residents and tourists on the beach.
“For the lasts several years, we’ve been trying to get the beach to be more resident friendly,” said council President Matthew Mannix. “We’ve had a lot of commentary from members of the community about that. So these are in-line with that philosophy. If we go back four or five years ago, we had a lot of crowding on the beach.”
Not all council members were in agreement however, as councilor Jesse Pugh harshly opposed the fee increases, believing the decision should come from the next council and would aversely affect local businesses.
“The residents are the priority in this town when it comes to going to the beach,” he said. “We all agree on that. [But] this is earlier than normal to pass these sorts of changes. We typically pass these in either November or December. 2017 policy changes were passed in January…this is the earliest in years. I can’t find any time that it’s been done this early.”
“To be honest, it’s suspect that this is being done so early,” Pugh continued. “This should be done by the next council. There’s no reason to rush it. We don’t have the operating expense numbers. So how do we pass increases without knowing what the bottom line was this year?”
Monday night’s council vote approved a string of rate hikes to take effect next year, including a $5 increase in the daily admission rate for Narragansett Town Beach, from $10 to $15 per person, as well as an increase in beach parking from $10 on weekdays and $15 on weekends to $20 per vehicle seven days a week.
Further recently approved policy changes also include the conversion of the town beach’s west lot to non-resident/employee parking, while the south and north lots will be used exclusively for resident taxpayers during beach operational hours. Finally, the town beach will allow parking for residents only from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. during the beach season.
Narragansett Parks and Recreation Director Steve Wright, whose department oversees the town beach, presented the increases to the Narragansett Town Council in a public workshop last month. The changes were put forward by unanimous vote from the town’s recreation advisory board (RAB), a public body in which resident members are appointed by the town council.
There is no change proposed for resident seasonal admission passes to the beach, which are currently $25 for adults, $10 for youth and free for seniors. Resident seasonal parking passes are $50 and are not proposed to increase next season. However, transferrable passes that can be purchased by only residents will increase from $75 per pass to $100 per pass, and be limited to five passes per resident, down from 10. Nonresident season admission passes are not available.
A strong consensus has emerged in the town’s annual beach survey to make Narragansett Town Beach more friendly to residents, and reduce overcrowding, a sentiment echoed by councilor Richard Lema Monday night.
“There are other places in Narragansett, that if this price is a little pricey for a family of four…you can go down to Scarborough [State Beach] or Sand Hill Cove,” he said. “Basically, here, it’s a resident beach. The residents want to see a little more elbow room on it. We’re trying to create a little more elbow room on it. And with COVID, we definitely had to create a little more elbow room on it…It’s not that people can’t go to the beach. Non-residents can go, but there’s a fee. And there’s a certain amount of money it takes, to run that beach.”
Lema implied the rate changes would decrease the amount of local traffic and off-site beach parking, and stated he recently heard from a business owner on Boon Street that more parking for businesses was needed.
“People get off the beach, they have bathing suits on, I’ve always said – ‘where are they going to go?’” he added. “I’ve had businesses call me – the ice cream shops, the pizza shops, and they’re not the Coast Guard House but they still have mouths to feed, and they feel that raising the beach fees by 50 percent is going to have an impact on their business.”
Council president pro tem Jill Lawler agreed.
“Narragansett Town Beach is for the residents,” she said. “And we do have the ability to have non-residents join. As pointed out by many, we have three beaches down the road that are beautiful, that people would drive hours to go see. I think this is a great job by the [recreation advisory board]. We need to have this increase.”
In response to this feedback from residents, the town, in 2018, after a 2017 vote from the previous council, increased the daily admissions rate from $8 to $10 per person and eliminated nonresident season admission passes.
The 2020 annual beach survey is currently being conducted and feedback from it is not yet available, as pointed out by Pugh, who said the town should wait for the data to become available before voting to approve any rate increases.
Both Wright and RAB chair Thomas Warren stated the parks and recreation department was facing increased expenses as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and other factors, with increased costs coming in the form of a recent, statewide $1 minimum wage hike, a new lifeguard chair, a new booth for the west parking lot, additional security due to recent assaults of beach staff by patrons and increased staffing and supplies due to the pandemic.
Councilor Patrick Murray stated the changes did not have to be so steep, and questioned Warren on why the daily admissions rate could not increase from $10 to $12 per person, as opposed to $15 per person.
“We decided going from $10 to $15 would be appropriate, as opposed to going to from $10 to $12,” said Warren. “It’s only $5. It’s not a large amount of money. Why we [opted for $10 to $15 per person] was so our staff that are working in the parking lots or at the gates minimize their contact with the public. There’s less change making to be done. People come up with a $10 and a $5 bill, it’s quick and it’s easier. Every time somebody comes in with $12, you’re always making change, it’s a lot more work, it slows the process down and it’s a lot more exposure to the public.”
Murray said he did not want to “scare tourists” but also wanted to protect residents, and asked if Warren believed the proposed increases were a happy medium, to which Warren answered affirmatively.
“There always has to be a balance,” he said. “Over the years, there’s been more and more people coming to the beach with the proliferation of Airbnb, hotels and so forth. There’s only a finite amount of space on the beach.”
The council received letters from 20 businesses in the Pier, as well as from the Southern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce, that were opposed to the proposed increases.
Pugh also stated that if the public were to begin frequenting other area beaches, such as Scarborough, instead of the town beach, as suggested by Lema and Lawler, the public would then be frequenting the businesses that already draw from the nearby state beaches, thus taking business away from establishments closer to the town beach who have traditionally relied on large crowds.
The public, who weighed in on the topic for about an hour Monday night, was split on the issue.
“Considering a 50 percent increase in prices, never mind being in unprecedented times, is price-gouging just for the sake of price-gouging,” said Michael Millen, Jr., a former candidate for council this year. “This is going to directly affect our local business owners, especially those in the Pier, by discouraging a family from visiting Narragansett Town Beach when they can go to any state beaches for a fraction of the price…Let’s not continue to discriminate against those who are not fortunate enough to afford to live in our town and instead find ways to entice them to visit and experience the restaurants and businesses that we have to offer. Do we want to have the reputation of a town of privilege?”
“I’m listening to you guys quibble about going to $12 versus $15,” said resident Gail Scocroft. “The issue of our beach is really not revenue, of course that’s important, but what has come out of the surveys, what we have found all of these years is the same issue, and that is we have exceeded the carrying capacity of our beach. As a scientist, I want to stress that we are not managing our resources using science.”
“We have to be conscious of the beach experience of our residents, and it has tanked because of the overcrowding,” she added. “We should not be a discount beach in Narragansett.”
Catherine Celeberto, a resident, agreed the large crowds at town beach and resultant parking across town hurt local businesses.
Steve Brophy, co-owner of Brickley’s Ice Cream, which has locations in Narragansett’s north end as well as in Wakefield, said the Narragansett establishment lost business after the town raised beach fees in 2018.
Laurie Kelly, a candidate for council this year, said a comprehensive approach that included input from all stakeholders was needed.
After the comment period, Murray proposed an amendment to the motion that would drop the admission fee from $15 to $12 per person, a move that was seconded by Pugh. The motion to amend, however, failed 2-3 with Lawler, Lema and Mannix opposed. Ultimately, the vote on the underlying motion, to increase the fees as originally proposed, was approved 4-1 with Lawler, Lema, Mannix and Murray in favor (the latter of whom stating he was supporting the move because of Wright and was still opposed to the $15 admission fee) and Pugh against.