NARRAGANSETT, R.I. — Narragansett Town Beach at sunset Tuesday: cotton-candy skies, people wearing blankets against the autumn mildness, a small dog with a scrunched face bounding from seashell to seashell like a puddle jumper exploring the coast for new sniffs.
It was, in other words, peaceful. It was, in other words, the opposite of what was taking place a mile away at Town Hall, where the Town Council held a meeting about a possible fee hike to get on that very peaceful beach. No cotton-candy skies here.
“Vote him out!” one man in the crowd jeered through cupped hands after the town council president spoke against the fee hike at one particularly contentious point.
The five-member town council did not vote Tuesday night at what is called a work session. Instead they heard a proposal from the town’s parks and recreation director, Michelle Kershaw, to raise walk-on admission fees to the Narragansett Town Beach from $12 to $15 per person, and to raise parking rates. The town charges during the beach season, which runs from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
Four members signaled they did not support raising walk-on fees to the town beach, the only one in the state with this New Jersey-style charge. The impassioned debate over the idea, though, underscores just how important coastal access is, and laid bare a contentious question in Narragansett, one that plays out all along the coast of the Ocean State: Who’s the beach for?
“Raising fees beyond what we have right now creates a financial burden and a financial barrier to the working class of Narragansett and Rhode Island,” said Cinna Zerquera-Martin, who chairs the town’s coastal access improvement committee.
She pointed out that we’re still not in a post-pandemic world. For many families, money is tight.
“I don’t see at this point in time the need for additional fees,” she said. “I see this as a time where we need compassion.”
Kershaw, whose position was supported by a majority of the town’s recreation advisory committee, cited rising costs and the need to have enough in savings in case of a major storm, like a direct hit from a Category 3 hurricane.
Many who came out Tuesday night voiced support for the fee hike. Walk-on fees are a bigger issue for people who don’t live in Narragansett; town residents and taxpayers are able to get seasonal passes for $25, so if they’re even semi-regular beach-goers, they have a more cost-effective option than out-of-towners. Bringing friends in from out-of-town, though, can be a more difficult prospect.
Those who supported it said the town could use the money. Demand seemed inelastic: Previous price hikes weren’t keeping people away.
Those who opposed it saw a different motive for the fee hike: keeping the beach as a quasi-private enclave and keeping out outsiders.
“I just think something like water access should be open to everyone,” said Carl Marchand. “When you start raising fees unfairly against a certain group of people, I don’t think it’s right. Nobody deserves the privilege of access to the water.”
Like the overwhelming majority of people in the crowd Tuesday night, Marchand is white. But he said he said the town could use more diversity.
“We should have more diversity coming into this town, that’s what we need, we need to welcome outsiders into this town,” Marchand said, prompting several to respond: “We do!” Marchand continued: “We shouldn’t worry about how crowded the restaurants are. Your dollar’s as good as anybody from Providence’s dollar to a businessman in this town.”
The beach, according to the town, cannot restrict access to non-town residents because of a land deal in 1985. But because it’s a town asset, the rec director Kershaw said, it should first serve taxpayers and residents.
People who agreed with that last part said they’re open to welcoming non-residents, but felt the town had lost sight of the priorities: maintaining a great town — emphasis on town — beach.
“What I don’t understand is, we’re sitting in Narragansett Town Hall, in Narragansett, you all represent Narragansett, you all represent us,” said Roxann Pereira, drawing some of the most boisterous applause of the night. “Why are you fighting us on keeping our beach so good? Why? I don’t understand it. ... I don’t understand why we want to give up our town beach.”
Members of the Town Council who opposed the hike cited the fact that the beach fund has gone up by several million dollars in the last few years, from about $2.3 million in 2017 to $4.2 million now. They also noted that they’ve raised beach fees repeatedly in the last few years. In 2005, it was $5 to walk on the beach. By 2018, it went up to $10. Last year, the previous Town Council raised them to $15, but that didn’t actually go into effect, and an ascendant majority on the council pulled them back to $12.
“What I see is people trying to make this an exclusive town beach, and I disagree with that, and I know people that disagree with that,” said Council President Jesse Pugh. “I’m not going to vote to raise the fees every year. If I don’t get re-elected I really don’t care.”
That prompted the “vote him out” comment and other assorted grumblings. Pugh said later he regretted getting emotional, but he also said he did not feel that the meeting represented the full swath of public opinion in Narragansett.
“This town isn’t just what you see here tonight,” he said.