NARRAGANSETT, R.I. — After months of debate, the Town Council in Narragansett in May passed a law to ensure parking on three local roads near a surfing hotspot on Point Judith.
Despite happening mostly over Zoom, the debate was lengthy and at times heated. Now it’s tied up in litigation: Some nearby homeowners say the council’s move was illegal and, therefore, null and void. Their lawsuit effectively seeks to have the courts block newly formalized parking access on three streets near the shore because, they say, the town violated their due process rights under the Rhode Island Constitution.
“In addition thereto,” the lawsuit goes on, “the enactment of the Parking Ordinance violates the Town’s Subdivision Regulations and the Town Charter of the Town of Narragansett.”
The lawsuit includes pictures of surfers clogging local roads and assertions about how wide a street needs to be to allow parking to safely co-exist with ambulances and fire trucks. It centers on a Town Council vote on May 3, when the panel voted to allow parking on one side of Conant Avenue, Pilgrim Avenue and Louise Avenue each between 5:01 a.m. and 8:59 p.m. Those roads are near several public rights-of-way where people can access the shore — so long as they can get to the rights-of-way.
For decades, according to local surfers, there was a live and let live attitude about parking in these neighborhoods: Year-round homeowners would wave from their lawns as the surfers rode the waves. In recent years, though, as beach shacks were knocked down to make way for coastal McMansions, homeowners started calling the police to get cars ticketed. Surfers and their allies launched a years-long campaign to formally allow parking down there; at one point a petition got 15,000 signatures. But the situation got even worse during COVID-19, when safety restrictions were used as a guise to essentially privatize what should be public lands, some coastal access advocates say.
“Generations and generations of people would lose easy access to a place that people from all over have enjoyed for over 75 years,” said Conrad Ferla, a surfer and local activist. “One of my goals in life is to make sure future generations get to enjoy the same things I get to enjoy, and that we don’t lose access to one of Rhode Island’s greatest natural resources. It’s for everybody.”
Ferla said he surfs the area all the time, and considers it a world-class destination thanks to its unique topography. During hurricane season, people come from around the world to surf, he said.
The parking issue on these three local roads is one example of debates playing out around Rhode Island over shoreline access, from Westerly to Barrington. But this particular one made even more headlines because of who else got involved in the debate: The mayor of Jersey City, New Jersey. Though Steven Fulop spoke at public council meetings in Narragansett, publicly invoking his status as a “resident” but not his role as the mayor three states away, he is not party to the lawsuit, which was filed in early June in Washington County Superior Court.
John O. Mancini and Nicholas J. Goodier, the lawyers for the plaintiffs, did not respond to requests for comment. The suit names several town officials and members of the Town Council.
Councilman Patrick Murray, named as one of the defendants in the suit, said in an interview Thursday that the suit may well backfire: A judge could very well say that they have to improve the roads, which would mean widening them, which would mean potentially even more parking, even closer to private homes.
“Be careful what you wish for, is the category this one falls under,” Murray said.
The suit seeks a declaration that the town’s ordinance amounts to an obstruction of the town’s public rights-of-way and an injunction deeming it null and void.
Private homeowners often say they don’t mind sharing space near the shore, but they do mind things like people leaving trash or surfers stripping their clothes off in public and just want commonsense safety regulations.