EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. — State officials, the city of Newport and a hotel developer on Wednesday announced a preliminary agreement to remove obstructions of a right-of-way to the shore on Lee’s Wharf.
The right-of-way had been designated more than three decades ago by state coastal regulators, but over the years, it became overgrown and blocked by things like a city-owned pump station and an electrical panel.
After a year of questions about who was responsible for the problem and a notice of violation against the city, the parties have now reached an agreement that will bring improvements to the site, clear some of the obstructions, and provide a five-foot easement to counteract obstacles that are too expensive to move, like the water pump station.
“We got to a place where we wanted to end up,” Attorney General Peter Neronha said in an interview. “There will be public access, and everyone will know it’s there, not because they look it up on a website, but because it’s obvious.”
The deal still has to undergo public comment and a regulatory review, but a news release from Neronha’s office included celebratory comments from just about everyone involved, including the advocacy group Save The Bay.
Neronha’s office has been quietly working through a list of obstructed rights-of-way in the state. Rights-of-way are designated by the state Coastal Resources Management Council as access points to the shore, whether that’s a sandy beach, a rocky fishing point or a pier. Those rights-of-way sometimes get blocked, though, either purposefully or maliciously. The CRMC, Neronha said, is sometimes not taken as seriously as an administrative agency. His office, on the other hand, has the power to sue people and haul them into court. Just that threat alone can help bring them to the table, whether it’s on things like lead paint or access to the shore. It’s “getting out on offense,” Neronha said.
“When our office gets involved, people know we’re serious,” Neronha said.
Lee’s Wharf is the second right-of-way issue they’ve resolved, without even having to go to court. The other was in Warwick.
In the case of Lee’s Wharf, the AG’s office and CRMC hit the city of Newport with a notice of violation after evaluating the obstructions, which includes a large electrical panel blocking views of the water. That panel will be moved as part of the deal.
The state has 400 miles of bay and ocean coastline, but only 230 or so state-designated rights-of-way to access that shore. Lee’s Wharf has been identified by groups like Save The Bay as a right-of-way without much of a right or a way.
One of the groups cheering the compromise was the Newport organization Friends of the Waterfront, which had cited the area as a problem spot.
Michael Rubin, legal counsel to the group and a former assistant attorney general himself, said in an interview that the obstruction of the water pump station and electric pnel was caused when a condo development to the north of the site went in a little over a decade ago. The condo developer — different from the one that’s helping solve the problem, Rubin said — “foisted” the pump station on the city, Rubin said.
Then it became the city’s problem. And everyone else’s problem: trying to get to the right-of-way after it was blocked was a thorny prospect, quite literally, with overgrown bushes. And there was contradictory signage, too, with some that said the public was welcome and others that said the public had better get lost. Even the bench at the end wasn’t very accessible.
“The only ones who could use it were seagulls,” Rubin said.
The timeline for the deal is contingent on the hotel developer, Howard Wharf LP, getting separate approvals for a proposal called the Manchester House, which abuts the right-of-way. Howard Wharf LP will provide the five-foot easement on the southerly side of the right-of-way to make up for the fact that the pump station won’t be moved. And along with the city, the developer will work to add lighting, benches, and new landscaping to the area.
“The Manchester House is delighted to have had the opportunity to work collaboratively with all parties to achieve a common goal, which protects public access to the Newport Harbor and the long-term goal of a continuous harbor walk,” Howard Cushing, a principal with Howard Wharf, said in a news release.