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In Rhode Island, some fire districts are under fire over beach access

The private communities are like tiny fiefdoms, with the power to tax residents -- and keep shorelines to themselves

A sign outside the Buttonwoods Fire District in Warwick informs people that they can’t enter unless they’re a resident or a guest. Though it’s called a fire district, the area doesn’t actually have a fire department.Brian Amaral

PROVIDENCE — About a dozen people gathered in a windowless room on the basement level of the State House Thursday afternoon to hash out shoreline access in Rhode Island.

The 12-member commission represents a broad cross-section of Rhode Islanders with a stake in the issue, from environmental groups that unequivocally support more access to real estate interests that may stick up for the right to private property.

There’s a little more just under the surface, though, as there often is with politics and beach access in Rhode Island. For one thing: the land use attorney on the commission is not actually a practicing land use attorney.


“I chuckled to see I was indicated as a land use attorney,” commission member Mark McKenney said in an interview, “because I do mostly worker’s compensation defense.”

A former Democratic state senator and longtime Warwick resident, McKenney previously served as a member of the zoning board in Warwick. After thinking about it and raising the issue with House leaders, he said he considers that experience enough to qualify him for the role on the commission.

David Splaine, meanwhile, told the Globe that although he is a realtor, he wasn’t sure why he’s being described as a representative of the state Realtors’ association on the commission. He does not feel as if he is representing it, he said in a brief phone interview.

But McKenney and Splaine do have more relevant interests in shoreline access that aren’t as well known: Both live in the Buttonwoods Fire District, a Warwick enclave jutting out into the Greenwich Bay with sparkling views of the water — and a number of “NO TRESPASSING” signs.

Public access vs. private communities

McKenney has served as a supervisor in the fire district, an elected position. Splaine is the senior supervisor there now. Despite its name, the Buttonwoods Fire District doesn’t actually fight fires. Instead it exists, like a few other fire districts around the state, to maintain a private shoreline neighborhood.


House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi told the Globe that he didn’t pick those two representatives because of their roles in Buttonwoods, but because he thought they were smart and would approach the issue of access fairly. When he was on the state Coastal Resources Management Council, he voted in favor of every right-of-way that came before that regulatory body, he said.

“I feel very strongly about public access to the waterfront,” Shekarchi said.

Shekarchi also noted that this unpaid volunteer commission won’t be voting on legislation, just making recommendations. He considered McKenney’s time on the zoning board in Warwick relevant to land use law — the law that created the commission says it must have a land use attorney — and he has known Splaine for many years. They are both constituents in his Warwick district, which includes Buttonwoods.

“They’re not going to sit in a star chamber and make a decision,” Shekarchi said. “They’re going to gather public information.”

State Rep. Terri Cortvriend, a Democrat of Portsmouth who’s proposed broadening access to the shore and who will also serve on the commission, said all of her picks for fellow members were approved.

“I do think it’s a fair and balanced commission,” Cortvreind said.

Fire districts are one important, and sometimes controversial, part of the shoreline access debate that the commission is gathering information on. The commission is specifically looking at “lateral” access — how close people need to be to the water to exercise their constitutional rights. But it’s hard to divorce the fire district question from the broader issues in the Ocean State.


What is a fire district?

Fire districts are an unusual form of local government in Rhode Island, predating Shekarchi’s tenure by generations. Originally intended to help convene police forces to protect against fires, many of them developed over the years into modern fire departments. But they also became attractive options for neighborhoods that wanted to create their own mini-government. Just like a town government, fire districts have to comply with open-records requests and, perhaps more importantly, they can levy taxes. There are six fire districts around the state that do not actually provide fire services, including Buttonwoods, according to state records.

They’ve become controversial in some areas of the shore for restricting access to the beach for the exclusive use of their own residents, especially in South County. One, Bonnet Shores in Narragansett, is being sued by the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island because it only allows people to vote in its elections if they’re taxpayers.

The Buttonwoods Fire District levies a tax of $1.76 on every $1,000 of assessed residential real estate. It uses that money to maintain the roads, including plowing, and for groundskeeping and upkeep of the tennis courts. (The city of Warwick though, takes care of garbage collection, policing, and, ironically, fire fighting). In Buttonwoods, you have to own $134 in property in the preceding year to vote in its elections, according to the district’s handbook.


According to McKenney, despite what the handbook says, renters are allowed to vote in practice, because the charter has since been superseded by constitutional law.

The feel of an exclusive, 1950s-era summer camp

A recent visitor to the Buttonwoods Fire District, was greeted first by a few stone pillars with signs on them that say: “Private community.”

Continue, and there’s another sign: “Residents and guests only.”

People who live in the neighborhood say they don’t mind when people drive or walk through. Houses are visible once you go a little farther down, past a copse of trees on a 20-mile-per-hour road. Well manicured lawns, wraparound porches, one home with a sign above the garage that says: “WHALECOME TO THE SEA.” The neighborhood was set up in a Victorian style, with park-like suburban ideals in mind.

The Buttonwoods peninsula tapers into a triangle, with a spit of sand at the end that the neighbors call “The Point.” Near the middle, there’s a casino — but like a fire district that doesn’t fight fires, at the Buttonwoods casino, you can’t really gamble. Instead, it’s a central event space for the private use of Buttonwoods residents and their guests. The tennis courts nearby are for residents and their guests only. It has the feel of a 1950s-era summer camp for kids and adults, with some rocky and sandy shoreline looking out into Greenwich Bay on the south side and views of the public beach at City Park across the way to the north.


It’s all managed by the fire district, which is the governmental entity created in 1925, and also by the Buttonwoods Beach Association, which was created by the General Assembly in the 1870s as a Baptist summer colony. The district collects taxes and gets the roads plowed; the association owns much of the land, and leases it to the district for $1, while acting in other respects like a condo association.

Nature and erosion has reshaped the land over time, but those who live there say it’s been the same lovely neighborhood — Olde Buttonwoods, some call it — for many years.

“It’s a very friendly place,” said McKenney, the shoreline commission member who’s lived there his whole life except while away at college. “With 140 or so homes, almost everyone knows everyone else.”

Not everyone is a fan of fire districts

Fire districts may be idyllic for those who live there, but they also have their critics. Richard Langseth, a Republican candidate for mayor in 2010, is one of them. He rented several houses within Buttonwoods, and for the past 25 years has lived just outside its boundaries. That does not stop him from going there pretty frequently. Once, in 2019, he was stopped by a city police officer who’d set up a post just outside with a sign that said “Private grounds, positively no trespassing.”

Langseth has taken the district to task over several things: The cop who stopped him (he wrote a letter to the chief). Whether the fire district is complying with open meetings requirements. The Federal Emergency Management Agency grant that helped pay to repair a seawall to protect the private neighborhood. The placement of hedges. Whether to call the roads public or private (public, he says) .Whether the CRMC should designate some areas within the district as public rights-of-way (yes, his answer. No, the district’s). Driving with him around the neighborhood sparks a catalogue of grievances, felt deeply and relayed matter-of-factly.

But he rejects the notion that he’s an embittered former resident who nobody likes. He stopped to chat with several people on a recent tour with a Globe reporter.

McKenney, on the other hand, called Langseth’s efforts to designate the roads within Buttonwoods as public a a one-person “crusade.”

“He has been trying to shout from the rooftops for as long as I’ve known him,” McKenney said. “It just hasn’t gained any traction. There’s no indication the city wants to take over the roads. They’ve stated that those are private roads.”

McKenney said this is not a gated community, so people can and do feel free to walk and drive through, despite the signs out front. Still, they’re within their rights to eject non-residents. About once a year, they’ll have the police or private security stop people from coming in to protect its private nature.

“It’s fairly welcoming,” McKenney said. “So long as people aren’t stopping and, let’s have a wild time here by the water, it works out just fine.”

McKenney brought his overall perspective — that private property rights are still worth protecting in this country — to the shoreline rights commission Thursday, although he said he won’t be there as merely a Buttonwoods representative or as someone looking to curtail access.

“Just as you or I don’t want somebody coming up and jumping in my car and driving off and saying, ‘hey, it’s mine now, we don’t want someone coming and taking our property or using our property,’” McKenney said. “We also see the value of having such an incredible resource in our state, and trying to open up access as much as possible.”

Public vs. Private roads

Splaine, the other member of the commission who lives in the district and serves as a supervisor, declined to be interviewed either on behalf of himself or on behalf of the fire district.

He has been at odds with Langseth. Right now, Splaine is involved in a single-family home project in the district. Langseth has raised objections about it — especially what he considers funny business with whether the streets are considered public or private. They can’t have it both ways, Langseth argues: private streets for the purpose of excluding people, but public streets for the purpose of building a new house.

Splaine is represented in the project by Joe Brennan, who works in the law office of K. Joseph Shekarchi, the House speaker. Shekarchi, who has a private practice focusing on zoning and land use, said he didn’t do any personal work on the project Splaine is involved in, but acknowledged his firm’s associate did. Splaine included Shekarchi in an email when Langseth filed the complaint about the surveyor.

Langseth on August 16 filed an appeal before the Warwick zoning board about the development, a flurry of documentation on this one issue.

So is the road public or private? It sometimes depends on whom you’re asking, and when you’re asking.

The city considers these roads private. So does the fire district, and there are certainly plenty of signs making that message clear.

But that hasn’t always been the message. In 2014, in a land dispute with homeowners in the district, the Buttonwoods Beach Association argued that the roads are in fact used by the public.

Indeed, the association’s lawyers wrote in legal documents, there are no restrictions prohibiting people from entering Buttonwoods and traveling over its streets. That legal position — which cited Mark McKenney’s testimony — might seem to conflict with the signs out front, but the association ended up winning the court battle on different grounds.

The head of the Buttonwoods Beach Association, Peter Dorsey, declined to comment.

Langseth, meanwhile, said people will argue with him that the roads there are public — but only for the people who live in the district, not for everyone else. That doesn’t sit well with him, he explained as he drove out of the Buttonwoods Fire District and back into a stretch of Warwick with strip malls and traffic lights.

“The reason I’m doing this,” he said on a recent weekday, “is so all these people can use the beach too.”

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