Ocean Access Activists and Surfers Ride Wave to Victory
January 6, 2021
NARRAGANSETT, R.I. — After a year of ebb and flow, an effort to allow and expand parking for surfers in Point Judith has been approved.
“Parking was restored to the avenues near Point Judith tonight … thank you to all that were involved … it took the entire community to fix this and will take the entire community to fix other problems statewide … everything we do on here is to benefit future generations,” wrote Conrad Ferla, a local surfing advocate and administrator for the Saving RI Costal Access/Rights of Way Facebook group.
In a Monday night Zoom meeting, the Town Council passed a motion to prepare an amendment to the town’s parking ordinance that would add parking spots to Nichols, Louise, and Pilgrim avenues.
This Point Judith neighborhood abuts Calef Avenue waterfront public access points and is home to some of the best surfing in New England. The motion will also investigate the possibility of widening the road at the public access points at the end of these streets.
A similar motion was proposed last year by current Town Council president Jesse Pugh and council member Patrick Murray but was struck down.
“The parking issues and ticketing down in that area had come to our attention, so we had looked for a solution to the problem,” Pugh said. “This proposal was rejected, 3-2, by the previous council, but we put it back on because this is an issue that we basically campaigned on, and we still believe that there should be parking down in that area.”
Surfers have been frequenting the swells off the Calef Avenue shoreline access point since the 1970s. The first parking complaint on record wasn’t until 2002. But, according to police chief Sean Corrigan, parking complaints have been “trending upward” in recent years, and many surfers at the Jan. 4 Zoom meeting complained of getting parking tickets where they had once been free to park.
“There’s a history here,” South Kingstown resident Nathaniel Merrill said. “People have been parking on those roads and surfing there for decades. So, what’s changed was no parking signs were added and people started to get ticketed. Framing this as adding parking is a little disingenuous; it’s kind of recovering what has been lost.”
While surfers complained that what was once an unspoken agreement about parking in this area has suddenly become a problem, neighbors voiced concerns that adding parking would make what is a quiet, secluded section of $1 million-plus homes louder and less private.
“We purchased our home several years ago, and for the large part we purchased it for the quaint neighborhood,” Pilgrim Avenue resident Paula Darin said. “It was quiet, off the beaten path, a great place to have a family, young children and feel safe and secure. I should be afforded the opportunity to live in a community that I chose … based on structure of community and the quaint neighborhood that it was, and not have to compromise on that because of people’s desire to use our streets.”
Other neighbors expressed concerns about gravel parking lots impacting nearby wetlands.
“This entire area is a very fragile ecosystem,” Sydney Gozzi said. “To just toss around gravel and allow people to park wherever they want is really doing a disservice to Rhode Island.”
While this entire kerfuffle may seem like an isolated neighborhood squabble, it’s emblematic of a larger, hotbed issue in Narragansett: coastal access and rights of way.
“There is no one in our Point Judith neighborhood, in our peaceful neighborhood, that is blocking right of ways,” neighbor Dina DiRuzzo said.
But fellow Narragansett resident Brian Wagner argued that access to parking is essential to beach access, and by taking that away, that very access is being limited.
“Access is meaningless unless it’s meaningful,” Wagner said. “And in our current car-based culture, that means parking. I have surfed these areas literally for decades, and I have never had an issue parking on Pilgrim Avenue. It’s always beyond me when people buy property in the immediate vicinity of a protected public resource like the coastline and then complain when the public comes to use it.”
The 4-hour, 25-minute meeting reached a boiling point when Murray, a co-sponsor of the motion, gave an impassioned speech about access.
“Most of the complaints are from people who don’t live here,” he alleged. He then blasted the neighbors’ environmental concerns, saying, “And everyone talks about the environment, oh, we don’t want to push crushed stone in because it won’t be environmental, well, where were all the environmentals [sic] when they were building all these modern homes using every easement and variance to get their big footprint?
“It’s this council’s duty to protect these access points, period. This is not an issue that can be taken lightly.”
In the end, the council unanimously voted to approve the motion.