PROVIDENCE — The Narragansett Town Beach, one of the most popular in Rhode Island, has been the subject of a years-long push and pull between town residents who want policies more favorable to them and people who want it more open to everyone.
The Town Council is now trying to get numbers that could enliven that debate, and related discussions over erosion and sea level rise. But even seeking out those numbers is likely to cause controversy.
On Tuesday night, the five-member council voted unanimously to seek bids for a carrying capacity study for the town beach, popular among surfers and sunbathers alike. Carrying capacity refers to how many people a beach can hold — both physically, in terms of square footage, and socially, in terms of comfort. The exact outlines of what the carrying capacity study will seek to learn in Narragansett are still up in the air, as is a dollar figure. The Town Council is set to take another look at the specific wording of the request for bids before it goes out.
But Tom Warren, who serves on a town advisory board that deals with the beach, explained why some people in town have wanted such a study for years. It wasn’t to exclude people, he said, but to get data on how many people can safely use the beach after years of concerns about overcrowding.
“Most people thought the beach was well run, pretty clean, but overcrowded way too many times,” Warren said. “So we decided we thought it would be necessary to find out how many people should be on the beach. What is the safe number of people? If there’s too many people there, it’s more than just uncomfortable. It’s an unsafe situation.”
Nobody at the Town Council meeting explicitly spoke out against the proposal. That came later in a Facebook group where people discuss shore access matters. The proposal got a frosty reception there, with some activists raising issues about a carrying capacity study being used to exclude people — underscoring the stakes of what might otherwise have been a low-profile affair.
Jesse Pugh, a former town council president who didn’t run for re-election in November, said in an interview Wednesday that he was wary of the motives behind a carrying capacity study. Some who support it might be doing so in good faith, but it could be used as a tool to limit access, even though attendance isn’t high by historical standards, he said. And it’s not even clear what data a carrying capacity study would actually gather; they’ve mostly been done in Europe, where it’s sometimes little more than a survey on how people feel about crowding, he said.
“I’ve been skeptical of something like that, because of what I think are probably the motives behind that study, which is to limit total capacity to that beach,” Pugh said. “And especially, I think that would be targeted toward non-residents. I think that’s always been the end goal for a capacity study. But we’ll have to see the way it’s carried out.”
Council President Ewa Dzwierzynski said in an interview Wednesday that limiting access was not her motive in seeking a carrying capacity study.
“I think it’s just information we can get, and data,” she said. “Nothing’s wrong with getting more information to make future decisions on. I don’t see it as trying to limit access.”
In proposing a solicitation for the study, town officials cited things like sea level rise, seasonal erosion and the increased severity of storms, which are putting pressure on a shrinking beachfront.
“Carrying capacity data for several parameters are necessary to effectively manage the beach and ensure its sustainability,” the town parks and recreation director said in a memo about the proposal. “A multi-parameter carrying capacity study will provide recommendations for beach operations, management, and sustainability.”
Narragansett has been a focal point for much of the shore access debate, which, despite all the attention on statewide legislation, is where some of the most consequential decisions take place. In the past few years, a council majority favored more access, creating a coastal access improvement advisory committee and holding firm on price increases to enter the beach. Narragansett Town Beach is the only public beach in the state to charge people to walk on, at $12 a person during the summer season.
The town has entrance fee policies that are favorable to town residents and property owners, like seasonal passes that non-residents aren’t eligible for. The years-long debate in Narragansett has been over how favorable those policies should be.
A new council took office after the November elections and heard a proposal to raise beach fees, although it hasn’t acted on it. Dzwierzynski, for one, said she would not support raising daily entrance fees this year, and instead would consider moving from a cash system to a credit card-based one. The beach doesn’t have a cap on admissions, although it was briefly limited in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.