PROVIDENCE — Picture it: It’s a temperate July weekend morning and you’re driving to Middletown, Rhode Island for a day in the sun. But when you get to Second Beach, the parking spaces set aside for non-residents are already filled about two and a half hours after the gates opened.
Hmm. You go just up the street to Third Beach. No luck: That parking lot is now for residents only. When did that happen? Frustrated, you drive up to neighboring Portsmouth to McCorrie Point. It’s not exactly a beach-beach, but it’s a place on the water where you can fish, relax, enjoy the shore and maybe collect some seaweed, as is your right under the Rhode Island Constitution. But parking there is restricted to residents only now, too.
Frazzled and frankly a little lost, you end up in Barrington, where the town-run beach looking out onto Narragansett Bay is nice enough on such a beautiful day and — wait, it turns out that has resident-only parking too. You remember going to the RISD beach just down the road some years ago, but nope, that’s now restricted to the university community.
There are plenty of other options in the Ocean State, including state beaches, where non-residents can park. But thanks to new restrictions put in place on town-run and some private beaches last year at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, this exercise in futility is becoming more and more common.
The restrictions have become popular with full-time residents and taxpayers in shoreline towns, where the modest dips in revenue are considered the price you have to pay for more exclusive access. And it may prove harder to lift them than it was to put them into place.
“The leadership of the community has seen the change as a positive,” said Matt Sheley, Middletown’s public affairs officer. “We have residents who are now able to enjoy the beach basically any time except for the busiest of days.”
In Middletown, Third Beach’s 250 parking spots were made resident-only last year, and half of the 1,200 parking spots at Second Beach, also called Sachuest Beach, were dedicated for residents-only. When the non-resident lot is filled, they post it on Facebook. When the resident lot is filled, residents can park in the non-resident lot, Sheley said.
The changes were put in place last year in part due to efforts to prevent crowds But even after the pandemic, the restrictions may stick around. Sheley said beach revenues were down slightly as a result of the changes, but not enough to affect operations, and town officials thought “sacrificing some revenues was worth it so residents could have those parking spots at the beach.”
There are, of course, other options to get on the beach besides taking a car. Most places in Rhode Island do not charge people to walk on the beach, only to park, so if you have a bike, take a RIPTA bus line or are staying nearby, it doesn’t matter if you’re a resident or nonresident.
Even before the pandemic, residents of some seaside towns have often had a leg up on parking, with cheaper and more accessible options. Westerly, for example, has long maintained that the Westerly Town Beach is private, managed for residents and property owners of Westerly.
But in some Rhode Island towns, the pendulum has recently swung in residents’ favor.
Take the town-run McCorrie Point in Portsmouth, for example. Full-time residents had long complained about the situation there — “the trash, the human waste, the diapers, the fish entrails, the fires,” Town Administrator Rich Rainer said.
It was not a new issue. A few years ago, a frustrated resident gathered up a couple of days’ worth of trash and dumped it in his office, Rainer said.
“He took matters into his own hands,” Rainer said. “I came in one morning, I was shocked.”
Restricting parking there to people with passes that only residents can get has virtually eliminated the problems, Rainer said. Portsmouth also has Sandy Point Beach, where parking last year was made for residents-only. This year they’ve eased that, but not entirely, making it so residents get many of the dedicated spots, about three to one, Rainer said. It used to be first-come, first-served.
In Barrington, a wealthy East Bay community, there’s an intramural dispute over parking near the town’s coastal access points. The town has several areas where people can walk onto the shore, but all the local roads have no parking signs. Critics say that means only people who live near those access points can access them, even though everyone in town — even those who live a few miles away and can’t simply walk to them — paid for it.
But there’s another issue that has gotten less attention, pitting Barrington against non-Barrington: The town last year restricted parking at the Barrington Town Beach to residents only.
Because very few were traveling out of state last year, the parking lot at Barrington Town Beach, like other municipal beaches, was filling up quickly. That was preventing year-round residents and taxpayers from getting to the beaches in their towns. So for a year, the town simply stopped letting non-residents park at the beach. The town beach isn’t a major source of revenue, mostly covering operations, and the additional resident passes the town sold made up for it.
Just this week, Town Manager James Cunha said, the town started allowing non-residents to buy passes to park again at the town beach — but just on weekdays.
That move came as a relief to Councilman Jacob Brier, who had opposed limiting beach parking to residents only.
“You can’t be an inclusive and welcoming community if you are excluding people,” Brier said. “I’m very happy to hear we’re selling day passes to out of towners again.”
The issue can be tricky, though, even for rock-ribbed shoreline rights advocates. Scott Keeley, a Charlestown resident whose activism has resulted in his seaweed-stained hands in cuffs, said in an interview that the issue of resident-only access to the shore is a nuanced one. There was a recent proposal to create a resident-only lot by Charlestown’s town beach, he said.
“I benefit from it, so it’s hard for me to say I don’t like it,” Keeley said. But, he added, excluding non-residents could cause other problems.
“How are the businesses going to feel when people start thinking that when you go to Rhode Island, you can’t get to the beach?” he asked. “Or you go and it’s too crowded, the lots are too full and there’s no parking?”
The most illustrative example of how this has played out in the last year might well be Narragansett. The Town Council last year put in a number of new resident-favored parking restrictions by the town beach, while also working to keep capacity down in the wake of COVID’s early waves.
It was hugely popular: According to a survey the town commissioned in September last year, 83 percent of respondents said they liked that the North, South and Cabana parking lots were restricted to resident/taxpayer-only from 5 to 8 p.m. daily. (Narragansett, unlike other town beaches, also charges people to walk on the beach, Jersey Shore-style.) Many said they’d be willing to pay more to make up for any lost revenue by restricting out-of-towners more.
Only a few stood up for the rights of non-residents, such as one respondent who said: “I didn’t like that non-residents couldn’t pay for parking and there were plenty of spaces available at both pavilions. I got a lot of parking tickets this year!”
But then a funny thing happened: A new Town Council majority took power, one more favorable to shoreline access. The council created a coastal access improvement advisory committee. If the vagaries of politics swept the council out of power, at least the committee would stick around. That committee has launched into several pro-access initiatives, and the Town Council itself added parking on several roads by a surfing hotspot, getting sued for its troubles.
And the new council reversed some of the policies that favored resident parking along the beach for this year. They didn’t get all the way back to the way they were before the pandemic, Council President Jesse Pugh said, but they dialed back some of the restrictions that favored residents.
Asked if residents ever tell him the council should prioritize them over non-residents, Pugh said: “Yeah. Definitely.”
But they are staying the course.
“I’m hoping that it’s noticed,” Pugh said, “and that other town officials feel confident and empowered to protect that access rather than cave.”