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SHORE ACCESS

Barrington, R.I., is balking at adding parking near the shore

After a study, the wealthy suburb determined parking could be added to 20 streets so the public could access beaches -- but is choosing not to allow parking on nearly half of them

Ken Block, a Barrington resident, poses for a photograph on the beach in Barrington in July 2021. He says parking rules and enforcement choke off access.Brian Amaral/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE — Earlier this year, the town of Barrington, Rhode Island, embarked on a study with a simple methodology but significant, if hyper-local, consequences: send police officers out in the dark of night to measure how wide the roads are.

The results would determine if the roads could handle on-street parking in this wealthy suburban town. And they would finally resolve complaints from people who say that the town limits parking near its access points to the shore, functionally making them accessible only to people who live in certain neighborhoods.

Those results are now in. For shoreline access advocates, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is that 20 roads were found to be wide enough to handle parking. The bad news is that the town’s administration is recommending to open up parking on only 13 of them. Seven more roads, including some with close access to the shore, are wide enough to allow parking, but there are “subjective” reasons not to allow it, the town’s administration said.

Those reasons include, among other things, the quality of life for residents who don’t want a bunch of people getting free beach parking outside their houses.

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“There are streets close to the beach that, experience tells us, would jam up with cars if we allowed parking on them,” said James Cunha, the Barrington town manager. He added later: “I think those people are taxpayers, they own property there, they have a right not to have their quality of life impacted by visitors to the beach that are looking for free parking.”

Barrington isn’t the first place that comes to mind when talking about shore access issues, but it does have a town beach, as well as several public access points, called rights-of-way, marked with pillars.

But the town has restricted parking at essentially all of those rights-of-way, meaning that if you live close by, you can walk to the shore, but can’t drive there if you live in another part of town, nevermind if you don’t live in Barrington. The town’s parking enforcement has almost exclusively centered in these shore areas, and most of the tickets came after someone called in to complain. On the flip side, some residents from time to time call the town to say they’re having a party at the house, please don’t ticket.

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The Barrington Town Council will discuss Cunha’s recommendation, laid out in a two-page memo, at its meeting on Oct. 4. If they decide to do anything, it would take a few more months, because they’d need to pass an ordinance.

Other factors Cunha took into account when deciding not to recommend opening parking include if a road had a school on it.

The idea of opening up parking generated blowback from people who live near the shore. They argued it would make it unsafe for their children, affect public health, and make it difficult for emergency vehicles to access. They also said if Barrington residents wanted to use the shore, they could easily go to the town beach. Barrington, which is made up of nice neighborhoods, very nice neighborhoods and extremely nice neighborhoods, limited access to its town beach to its own residents for a stretch of the pandemic, although those rules were eased about halfway through this past summer.

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Ken Block, a Barrington resident who lives too far away to take his dog Tilly to walk on the beach via one of those access points, was the first one who raised concerns about the parking situation. He is even more concerned now after reading the town manager’s recommendation.

“I believe all of this is a continuing effort to keep ‘public access’ private,” Block said. “And it’s really disgusting. A town like Barrington shouldn’t be engaged in stuff like that.”

There are two roads where Cunha is recommending opening parking that arguably offer some level of shoreline access. That includes Bay Spring Avenue, the end of which has a formal right-of-way, and Blanding Avenue, which is near a park. But those areas have no actual sandy beach. The end of Bay Spring Avenue is a postage stamp. You could fish there from time to time, Block says, but they are not the prime spots for people to exercise their state constitutional rights, like swimming, passing along and collecting seaweed.

The prime spots are places like Governor Bradford Drive and Chachapacassett Road. Those are objectively wide enough to allow parking, but subjectively not fit for it, the town administration believes.

The town had used a measurement — 26 feet — to determine if it would be wide enough to allow parking. They got that number from the National Fire Protection Association’s fire code. THe NFPA’s nonbinding standards don’t actually say fire access roads need to be 26 feet wide; they say they need to be 20 feet wide, and the town is extrapolating out from there six more feet for the width of the car. The code generally doesn’t regulate public roadways themselves, but instead regulates buildings on them, and says certain buildings, with some caveats, need to be on fire access roads.

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Block looks up to Boston for evidence that the town of Barrington could allow more parking than it currently does on its wide thoroughfares.

“Beacon Hill hasn’t burned down because they allow parking at the sides of some narrow roads,” Block said.

Cunha, meanwhile, said it’s all about balance. Asked to respond to Block, Cunha said: “It’s about safety and quality of life for the residents. If he lived in one of those homes by a point of access, I don’t think he’d want someone parking half on his lawn all day long. It’s a matter of perspective.”


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