Complaint Filed to Protect Napatree Point from Access Way Through Dunes
May 8, 2023
WESTERLY, R.I. — Every summer Napatree Point, a slender strip of land at the mouth of Little Narragansett Bay, where the Pawcatuck River empties into Block Island Sound, is swarmed with tourists, boaters, beachgoers, hikers, anglers, and nature observers. Finding a scrap of beach can be difficult, as last year some 40,000 people visited the sandy peninsula.
This year, longtime debate about the control of an access path — so-called “Fort Road,” the name locals use to refer to the pathway from Watch Hill to Napatree Point — to the popular Westerly destination finally spilled over.
Last week, Hinckley, Allen & Snyder LLP, the Providence law firm representing the Watch Hill Fire District and The Watch Hill Conservancy, filed a complaint in Rhode Island Superior Court naming the town of Westerly, various local officials, and the state of Rhode Island in a case involving the fate of Fort Road.
In a statement announcing the May 4 complaint, a Watch Hill Fire District (WHFD) spokesperson noted the organizations are “seeking to protect the fragile Napatree Point ecosystem by preventing the Town of Westerly from a ‘taking’ that violates property rights and could potentially result in a 20-foot wide road or right of way through the Bay Street parking lots all the way through the Napatree Point dunes.”
“The Town’s current efforts are misinformed and misguided and will threaten over 70 acres of conservation property, pedestrian safety, and will result in a loss of public parking,” the spokesperson wrote. “There is a lot of disinformation about Napatree, private property rights and the Fire District’s posture on beach access. The Fire District has worked for decades financially and otherwise to preserve and protect Napatree and its unique natural environment. At the same time, the public has enjoyed continuous access to this beautiful conservation area.”
The Watch Hill Conservancy also issued a written statement, saying a 2013 conservation easement requires the conservancy to protect Napatree Point and “its unique conservation values.”
The two organizations noted they don’t stop anyone from accessing the 86-acre Napatree Point Conservation Area through the properties they control. In fact, because of conservation easements, they say they go out of their way to provide access as long as it is consistent with conservation efforts.
“No one is denying access,” the WHFD spokesperson wrote. “The WHFD has protected this unique natural resource for over fifty years, and The Watch Hill Conservancy has aided in this stewardship since its inception. The WHFD, The Watch Hill Conservancy and the local community spend hundreds of thousands of dollars each year maintaining and preserving Napatree Point and supporting respectful visitation by everyone.
“It is difficult to understand what the Town wants to accomplish. Westerly residents, and visitors from everywhere, have the exact same access rights to Napatree as Watch Hill residents.”
She noted the WHFD has “invested millions of dollars in parking for the public through its purchase and operation of parking lots creating more than 300 spaces.” She also noted the district provides public restrooms and free public parking for shoppers and diners.
The Fort Road debate goes back to the late 19th century, according to the WHFD, when the federal government bought parcels on the 1.3-mile-long peninsula to build Fort Mansfield. What became known colloquially as Fort Road, however, was not a public right of way, but a private easement for the government and local property owners to use, according to the complaint.
The federal government stopped using Fort Mansfield in 1926, and 12 years later the hurricane of 1938, also known as the “Great New England Hurricane,” smashed the peninsula’s 39 2- and 3-story houses that stood just a few feet from the churned-up fury of the Atlantic Ocean. The private easement, according to the Watch Hill Fire District and The Watch Hill Conservancy’s complaint, hasn’t existed for years. It’s also now partly underwater.
In 2008, however, the Town Council passed a resolution declaring Fort Road a public road — incorrectly and contradicting its own title lawyer’s opinion, according to the two-party complaint.
“In 2007, the Town of Westerly’s own title attorney found no evidence to support the notion that Fort Road was or is a town road,” according to WHFD’s press release. “The 2008 Town Council resolution ignored that finding and in doing so did not and could not create property rights. These actions by the current Town Council have compelled us to bring this action, which does not infringe upon the public’s access in any way. To the contrary, we seek to preserve and protect the pristine beauty of Napatree Point, meet our commitments to all our dependent constituencies, provide safe pedestrian access and not reduce parking available to the public in our Bay Street lot.”
Napatree Point is owned, managed, and protected by a partnership of different interests: the Watch Hill Fire District, The Watch Hill Conservancy, the town of Westerly, the state, and a few private landowners. Conservation easements protect it from future development.