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A New Jersey mayor makes waves over beach access in Rhode Island

The mayor of Jersey City owns a house in Narragansett, and has waded into the battle over how the public — including local surfers — use the beach.

A surfer prepared to launch at Narragansett Beach in March 2020.
A surfer prepared to launch at Narragansett Beach in March 2020.Stan Grossfeld/ Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE —The subject was coastal access and the place was Narragansett, so it’s no surprise that at a virtual Narragansett Town Council meeting, even in the depths of January, things got a little heated.

Councilman Patrick Murray had gone on a bit of a rant about, among other things, people who don’t live in the area full time and complain about people using the area. Local oceanfront property owner Steven Fulop fired back.

“In my entire life I have never been as embarrassed by an elected official as I have been by the conduct of Patrick Murray tonight,” Fulop said. “He didn’t make one cogent point other than being the loudest one and drowning out every council member that tries to have a dialogue.”

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Though he didn’t say so at the time, Fulop has a close view on the conduct of elected officials: In addition to being a Narragansett homeowner, he is an elected official himself — the mayor of Jersey City, N.J.

Fulop, a two-term Democrat in New Jersey’s second-biggest city, has gotten involved in a contentious civic dispute 176 miles and three states away. He and his wife Jaclyn, a Narragansett High School graduate, own a second home on Calef Avenue, with sparkling views of the Atlantic Ocean. They bought a piece of property there in 2018 along the Rhode Island shoreline and built themselves a 2,952-square-foot house.

The Fulop property is next to a right-of-way, an area that the public — including local surfers — has used to access the shore for years. At council meetings this year and in e-mails to Narragansett town leaders, Fulop has raised issues with proposals to expand public parking nearby and about the general behavior of surfers who use the area.

“I constantly feel like we are under attack as residents in that community,” Fulop said at one meeting.

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Jersey City, N.J., Mayor Steven Fulop spoke during a press conference in 2019 in Jersey City, N.J. The mayor also owns a home in Narragansett, R.I., and has been vocal about the way the public accesses the beach near his house there.
Jersey City, N.J., Mayor Steven Fulop spoke during a press conference in 2019 in Jersey City, N.J. The mayor also owns a home in Narragansett, R.I., and has been vocal about the way the public accesses the beach near his house there.Eduardo Munoz/Associated Press

Fulop goes there about once a month for his two young kids to see their grandparents, a campaign spokesman, Phil Swibinski, said. Fulop himself is from Edison, N.J., but his wife’s family has deep roots in the Narragansett area and still live in town.

“He’s a very civically minded person,” Swibinski said. “I think that fills into all aspects of his life. When he sees an issue that he feels that he can contribute on, he’s going to contribute on it.”

The issues in Fulop’s Narragansett neighborhood pit local surfers and longtime residents against oceanfront property owners. Beyond the dispute over parking, there are undercurrents of deeper questions over ocean access in Rhode Island.

The constituent-cum-mayor has spoken out on parking issues along the shore there during at least two public Town Council meetings this year, saying he was a Narragansett resident. Swibinski said Fulop didn’t mean to suggest he was a full-time resident there, because he’s a full-time resident of Jersey City, where he is the mayor. According to documents examined by the Globe, Fulop does not have a homestead exemption, which lowers people’s taxes in Narragansett on their primary residence. An October 2020 mortgage also had a second-home rider.

Fulop has also sent emails to Narragansett council members and the town manager, sometimes invoking his New Jersey title, according to documents obtained by Globe Rhode Island via a records request. For example, in trying to set up a phone call with Councilwoman Susan Cicilline Buonanno to discuss the issues, he mentioned he’d met her brother, US Representative David Cicilline, when he went to Washington, D.C., to meet New Jersey’s congressional delegation. He asked her to send him his regards. (Cicilline Buonanno said the mayor from New Jersey had a vested interest in the issue and she reacted the same way she did on the many other e-mails she got about it. She does not recall sending his regards to her brother.)

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In a September 2020 e-mail to Narragansett town manager James Tierney, Fulop cited his mayoral experience to explain that he was familiar with the job Tierney had. Fulop wanted to discuss surfers parking at the end of his street and damaging his property. Tierney said he didn’t remember if the two ever talked.

In February, Fulop sent Cicilline Buonanno a link from a security camera at his house illustrating his concerns. The video shows a surfer cutting diagonally across the back of his backyard and another placing a surfboard at the edge of his lawn.

Fulop has also said that surfers have moved or taken outdoor furniture and often strip their clothes off in front of his house. Some people have left beer cans behind, he said.

Local politicians are taking Fulop’s concerns in stride. Murray, the councilman, recalls Fulop’s strong criticism of him back in January.

“I take it as a badge of honor if some liberal politician from New Jersey calls me the worst politician he’s ever met,” Murray said. “Are you kidding me? I’m trying to figure out where to hang it on my jacket. That’s a frickin’ badge. I’m honored he dislikes my politics. I’m right over the target, man.”

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Murray’s rant at the January meeting — and Murray himself called it a rant — targeted politicians who prioritized people who don’t live in the area full time over locals who have accessed the shore for years, and officials who care more about the next election than the next generation. He went on and off for 20 minutes. Murray questioned the placement of planters on Fulop’s property; as Murray shook his head, Fulop responded that the town encouraged him to put them there.

Fulop declined Globe Rhode Island’s request for an interview.

The Jersey Journal previously reported some of Fulop’s comments before the Narragansett Town Council. It’s caused a bit of a stir in the Garden State, where critics have attacked him for his Ocean State connections. Fulop is running for reelection this year.

In a previous mayoral campaign, Fulop targeted then-New Jersey Governor Chris Christie for the infamous aerial photos of the governor on a chair on a strip of beach that had been closed due to a state government shutdown.

But Fulop stressed that, in Narragansett, he supports access. He simply wanted a reasonable compromise on parking in the area, though he felt that “it just doesn’t stop.” He particularly opposed a proposal Murray had floated to widen the road.

“We have families, we do live there, we do love the community, and we do pay taxes, and we do support you guys, and we know it’s not an easy job, but we do feel like we’re under attack,” Fulop said at one meeting in January.

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On Monday night, the Town Council voted to allow parking from 5:01 a.m. to 8:59 p.m. on three local roads, one of which goes by Fulop’s house. Fulop was not among those to weigh in.


Brian Amaral can be reached at brian.amaral@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @bamaral44.