Push Made to Make Public Street a Coastal Right of Way Again
July 19, 2021
PROVIDENCE — A subcommittee of the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) recently recommended that Public Street’s easternmost end be made public again.
The ownership status of Public Street, which intersects Allens Avenue south of Interstate 195, has long been muddied, leading private entities to encroach on what is one of the few shoreline access points on the city’s South Side.
At a June 29 meeting, the Right-of-Way Subcommittee clarified city ownership of the street and moved to reestablish coastal access at the site.
“We in South Providence are severely landlocked and we are in a terribly polluted area and hopefully this will unlock us and give us public access to the water,” said Linda Perri, president of the Washington Park Neighborhood Association.
Coastal rights of way are often obscured by trends in historic usage, clerical errors, or missing or contradictory documentation. Through the Rights-of-Way Subcommittee, CRMC acts to affirm existing coastal access points, rather than to create new ones.
Anthony DeSisto, CRMC legal counsel, said a property title search uncovered an 1876 resolution by the Providence Board of Aldermen that laid out Public Street as a city roadway.
“Public Street is, in fact, a public right of way to the coastal waters of the state of Rhode Island,” he said, recommending the subcommittee make a formal motion to open access at the next meeting of the full council, scheduled for July 27.
The terminus of the road represents a 40-foot right of way that has been fenced off in recent years by the owners of two private lots. The owners were given notice in November 2020 and the barriers to access were removed, according to special assistant attorney general Gregory Schultz who spoke on behalf of the attorney general’s office at last month’s subcommittee meeting.
Schultz said confusion over Public Street’s status was likely due to a clerical error on a prior deed transfer. He said the boundary of lot 325, now owned by Airway Leasing LLC, was incorrectly listed as the northern edge of Public Street. But all other documentation, including a slate of maps dating back to 1818, indicated the private property boundary should be the southern edge of the city street, he said.
“Many of these urban rights of way have been lost historically for a variety of reasons,” Schultz said. “It is extremely important that the rights of way that currently exist be protected to the maximum extent possible.”
Jed Thorp, advocacy coordinator for Save The Bay, said the Providence-based nonprofit is supportive of a coastal access point for residents of an area “historically overburdened by various sources of pollution” and underserved in terms of waterfront access and usable outdoor spaces. Save The Bay was also committed, he said, to running shoreline cleanups to keep the area enjoyable into the future.
Josh Parks, an attorney representing Sims Metal Management, which operates on the waterfront south of Public Street, pushed the subcommittee to consider the high industrial traffic of the area and the designation of that section of the Providence River as an industrial and commercial navigation channel. Though he did not formally object to the right-of-way designation, he said a CRMC decision should respect the area’s industrial users.
Additional public comments noted the recreational benefits of the right of way, the opportunity for the community to better connect to nature and the need for additional fishing locations in the area, especially for some low-income residents who might rely on fish caught in the Providence River to feed their families.
Support came from the Washington Park Neighborhood Association, the South Providence Neighborhood Association and the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.
“I think this is a day to celebrate,” local resident Doug Victor said, “because officially declaring this end of Public Street a public right of way really builds the quality of life in a small way, but a very significant way, for the residents of the South Side.”