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Judge sides with Narragansett, for now, in shore access parking dispute

The decision doesn’t end the legal case, but is a significant victory for the town’s legal position that it was within its rights to allow people to park in an area that includes popular coastal access spots.

Surfers near Point Judith.Stan Grossfeld/ Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE — A lawsuit trying to reverse a Narragansett Town Council decision to add parking in a Point Judith surfing and coastal access hotspot hit a roadblock Thursday.

Superior Court Judge Sarah Taft-Carter’s decision doesn’t end the legal case right now, but it’s a significant victory for the town’s legal position that it was within its rights to allow people to park in an area that includes popular coastal access spots. Taft-Carter found various arguments by the residents — including that the Town Council didn’t really think things through and was jeopardizing safety in the area — unpersuasive.

“I never think we know until the actual judgment comes in, but if there was much of a case, then the consideration of an injunction would have been, I think, more plausible,” said Narragansett Town Council President Jesse Pugh. He added: “There really isn’t much of a case for a resident to dictate what streets we allow parking and we don’t.”

Pugh said he would have been much more surprised if the decision had gone the other way, because it would have hampered efforts to improve coastal access everywhere in Rhode Island.

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John Mancini, a lawyer for the residents, said his clients are disappointed in the decision, but emphasized it’s not the end of the road — the lawsuit is still alive and will go through other stages.

“They’re definitely feeling the effect of the ordinance, and they don’t believe that the town did any due diligence to really balance the interests of the residents with their goal for coastal access,” Mancini said. “There needs to be some type of balance, and the clients believe there hasn’t been that type of balance.”

They’ll try to address the weaknesses that Taft-Carter highlighted in her decision, Mancini said.

The additional parking was on just three relatively small roads, but crystallized many of the debates over coastal access in the state — and in fact helped spark some of the recent activism over the issue. By way of background: People who’ve gone there to access the shore said that historically, they had no problem parking on the roads, even though it was technically prohibited under town law. In recent years, with turnover in the neighborhood, they said, some people went to park there and, after a few hours of surfing or visiting the shore — including several state-designated coastal access points — got parking tickets.

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In May 2021, after a local outcry, the Town Council voted to add parking there from 5:01 a.m. and 8:59 p.m. (The saga over parking on the avenues even spawned side-sagas, like the New Jersey mayor who got involved in the issue of shore access in the area and made it seem like he lived in Narragansett, where he owns a second home, not the city in New Jersey where he is a mayor.)

The town council’s vote to add parking in the area led to this lawsuit against various Narragansett officials. The town has sought to dismiss it. The town later had land surveys done, which showed, they argued, that the town was well within its rights to add parking: It was nearby property owners who were encroaching on the town’s right-of-way for years, not the other way around. The town, in fact, is now batting around ideas to improve parking in the area.

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But the residents who sued said the town trampled their rights, arguing, among other things, that the parking violated the town’s own subdivision regulations, as well as constitutional protections against taking property without compensation.

The residents who’d sued argued that they were likely to win the lawsuit and were being irreparably harmed. Because of that, they said, the judge should grant what’s called injunctive relief, declaring the law null and void until a final decision is made. They even asked the judge to go look at the area for herself, which they argued was too narrow to accommodate parking and was posing safety hazards.

But Taft-Carter’s decision, 37 pages in all, mostly rejected their arguments and accepted the town’s at this somewhat early stage in the litigation.

For example, the residents didn’t provide any actual data or evidence that the new parking rules would obstruct the roadway, stop emergency vehicles from accessing the area, or create other safety issues, she said. The town, on the other hand, provided good evidence that those concerns were unfounded based on field tests involving emergency vehicle access, Taft-Carter said.

Overall, Taft-Carter wrote, fairness tipped in favor of denying the residents’ request to block the law immediately.

“Coastal access is paramount to the citizens of the Town as well as the State,” Taft-Carter wrote. “Consequently, granting injunctive relief would also be against the overriding public interest in greater public access.”


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