BARRINGTON, R.I. — If you want to see the tension over beach access in Rhode Island, even in a sleepy and wealthy suburban community like Barrington, you can find it in the span of just a few feet.
At the end of Annawamscutt Road, just before the pavement turns to seashells and sand, there’s a five-foot-high concrete pillar emblazoned with the words “PUBLIC POINT OF ACCESS.” On a telephone pole to the left, however, there’s another sign: “NO PARKING EITHER SIDE OF STREET.”
Ken Block, a resident of Barrington whose tax dollars have helped fund both of those signs, stands in between them and shakes his head in disbelief. He lives miles away, so how on Earth is he supposed to get there?
“People have paid for this,” Block said, “but they can’t get to it.”
Rhode Island is the Ocean State. It has 400 miles of shoreline along the Atlantic Ocean and Narragansett Bay, and as the novelty T-shirts would have it, is 3 percent bigger at low tide. (Not true, but still.)
In towns around the state, though, people have to battle to access that shore, thwarted by transportation restrictions, encroachment or municipal indifference. The seaside town of Narragansett is currently being sued for adding parking near the shore in a battle that pits private homeowners against surfers.
In Barrington, a town with great schools and well manicured lawns that looks out onto the lower Providence River and Narragansett Bay, the issue is rearing its head.
The problem: Barrington has several public rights of way to the shore, each marked with one of those stylish pillars installed in 2018 and maintained with taxpayer money. But the streets surrounding many of them do not allow parking, even though, in the view of residents like Block, at least some of them can.
The end result: Much of the public actually can’t access the beach.
Assessing the streets
Much of the work to resolve the issue is happening in the dark. Barrington is now undergoing a review of all of its streets, and is about a third of the way done. Cops on the midnight shift are going out with measuring tape to see how wide the roads are. If they’re at least 26 feet wide at the narrowest point, the town manager will recommend they allow parking on one side. If they’re at least 32 feet, he’ll recommend adding parking to both sides. The town cites a nonbinding fire code standard of 20 feet for fire access roads, adding six feet for the width of a car, for this measurement.
“I’m looking to have an objective standard we can apply to determine this, so we’re not playing games with who lives in the neighborhood,” Town Manager James Cunha said.
The Town Council last month shot down a proposal to add parking on some streets, citing the more objective standard that was ongoing. If they eventually follow Cunha’s recommendations, some parking changes would come to neighborhoods across Barrington. But it will ultimately be up to the Town Council to decide on particular streets, Cunha said.
Already, though, the town’s review has identified some roads where parking is allowed, but shouldn’t be under this 26-feet rule. Potentially more controversially, though, Cunha said they’ve found others where the roads are wide enough to allow at least some parking, despite all the no-parking signs and tickets issued over the years. Some are near the shore, in areas where residents have said they’re not comfortable adding more parking for safety reasons.
Block, a former Moderate Party and Republican candidate for governor, he has railed against parking rules in and around the Nayatt neighborhood of Barrington, says it’s not really about safety at all, but access.
Safety vs. access
As part of his quest, Block had the town send him records of all parking tickets issued in Barrington over the span of about two years. He received records of 358 tickets, the vast majority of which were written for parking on roads, such as in the Nayatt neighborhood, that are within walking distance from public rights of way to the shore — roads that have had parking restrictions added over the years.
Most tickets — 84 percent, by Block’s calculations — were written after someone contacted the police to complain. In several dispatch logs, police note that someone called in after seeing someone walk to the shore, in one case carrying beach chairs.
Also notable, though, are the times when tickets were not issued: Block noted that some people will call the town to say they’re having a party, and request that the police not ticket people who are parking near their house that day. (Cunha confirmed that the town does honor these sorts of requests as a service to their residents from time to time, and that they urge them to park only on one side.)
That, to Block, sets up an unacceptable situation: The people who decide who parks where are the people who live in Nayatt, not the police. It effectively turns a publicly funded resource like the shore into something that only some people can readily access. Indeed, trips around the Nayatt neighborhood on a recent weekday found landscaping trucks, electricians’ vans and all manner of passenger cars parked on roads that are supposedly no-parking.
“If this is a question of safety,” Block said, giving a Globe reporter a tour of some of the local roads with the illegally parked cars on them, “how do you allow this? It’s not about safety. We all know that.”
Block lives on Atlantic Crossing, an area far from the public rights-of-way. His street allows parking even though it’s only 23 feet wide by his measurement. He first got interested in this access issue when he got his goldendoodle puppy, Tilly, two years ago. He wanted to take her to the beach because she’s got a lot of energy and the beach was a good place to expend some of it. His tax money had gone to install and maintain those rights-of-way to the shore, but he has no practical way to get to them because you’re not supposed to park nearby.
Limiting access to the beach
Other areas where people used to be able to park have recently curtailed access, like a Rhode Island School of Design property that is now just for the university. The Barrington Town Beach also now only allows residents to buy parking passes at the beach parking lot, a policy that was instituted last year due to how quickly the lot would fill up during the COVID pandemic. Cunha said they’re allowed to do that because they haven’t taken state funding for the beach; the town might let out-of-towners back in if the lot stops filling up with Barrington residents.
Block’s efforts have mostly focused on access to the shore in Barrington for other Barrington residents, who, after all, have paid for the upkeep of these rights of way. He is less intent for now on the broader questions of how every Rhode Islander — or really anyone, given the town’s proximity to Massachusetts — might be able to access the beach. That fight will come later, Block said.
Even under his narrower approach, though, Block has come up against resistance from people who live in the Nayatt neighborhood and other surrounding streets, who say adding parking in their neighborhoods would present an untenable safety hazard.
“You have lots of children riding bikes and scooters and skateboards and all sorts of things,” Annelise Conway, a Barrington councilwoman who lives near a coastal right-of-way, said in an interview. “When you have a number of cars driving up and down the street, it brings up a safety concern.”
Conway was concerned that more parked cars would make it more difficult for ambulances, fire trucks, and police to respond to emergencies in the area.
Conway said there are other options for people: They could park at a school that’s a little over a half-mile away from Barrington Town Beach, when school is not in session. They could also be dropped off or ride a bike, she said.
“The access is there,” Conway said. “The opportunity to get on the beach is available.”
To Dr. Amy Nunn, a nearby resident who has a background in public health, concerns about narrow roads in Barrington are deeply personal: Her son was injured when he was “sandwiched” between a car and a trash can while he was on his bike in the neighborhood. She does not want parking added on neighborhood roads because, she said, it could lead to more accidents. She’d prefer things like bike paths or more thoroughly thought-out parking lots.
“I’m all for public access,’ Nunn said. “I just don’t know if it should be in the areas proposed.”
Jacob Brier, a Barrington councilman, said his own road in the Primrose Hill area — not near a public right of way — allows parking on both sides, even though it’s roughly the same width as the ones near the shore that do not. In June, he introduced a resolution to allow parking on certain streets by the water, but the council decided to move ahead with the study that would measure roads.
As Brier surveys the streets in Barrington, he looks both ways.
“I respect that they chose a home on a quiet street in walking distance from the water, and if it were to change and allow parking, that changes where they are,” Brier said. “I also hear from folks who want to be able to go to the beach. I’m interested in having this conversation and finding the way we can increase access and hold to our value of being an inclusive, welcoming, neighborly town, while also maintaining the calm, peaceful neighborhoods that folks are used to.”