Time to rethink
There are days in high summer when the number of cars lining the Neck Road is so such that it is impossible to tally while driving past. Even adhering to the posted speed limit of 25 miles an hour, even creeping more slowly as drivers, as impatient as I would be were I behind me, form a quickly growing line, there are just too many to count.
One day last week I limited myself to the east side of the road; there were 160 vehicles from Scotch to the corner of Beach Avenue; today there were 106 on the west side. Those numbers do not include those in the overflowing parking lots, but there were surely more than the 36 shown in front of the beach house in the postcard reproduced with this column.
What is not clear in the photo is the poor condition of the west end of the parking lots, for years a mess in the aftermath of Hurricane Carol. The demand did not justify the expense of repair, as the photo attests.
The cars, back in the 1950s, barely made a dent in the expansive area which has shrunk over the years to perhaps half its original size. Surprisingly, the lot reached the Sullivan House gate in the photo as it does today.
It begs the question, what happened?
The dunes along that section of the east beach naturally move inland. In winter their west-facing slopes can be covered with pale sand lifted up and over their crests by strong winds. It is something I see, going up and down the Neck Road every day. It is something for which I look, schooled by my father talking of the bones of the winter beach laid bare, lost as much to the growing dunes as the raging ocean.
In this late 1950s postcard image, there is snow fencing and little more on the south side of the beach house. The dunes grew slowly, the inland march forestalled for years by the State installing fencing every winter on the seaward side of the building.
That practice ended when the lengths of brown slats held together with wire were torn out by the sea in two back-to-back winters of bad storms, soon after groins were removed. There may be no connection whatsoever between those two changes but one wonders.
Nonetheless, the parking lot was invaded from the east by the dunes, mindless of the heavy guardrail, meant to make the lot a vehicle pen, isolated and protected from the march of nature. Also, oddly, the reconstruction of the beach house, that was completed in August 1990, included a planting, a heavy vegetative buffer between the road and the lot, further lessening the parking area. It is especially odd as the landscaping budget is often the first item cut when construction costs run high.
Back in the 80s, I fielded what seemed an odd call from the State, inquiring about the revenues the Town received from the State for our share of parking at the then State beach. It was then that I learned towns gained a share of parking revenues. Still not sure why the State called to ask what the State sent us...
That original lot would not have held all the cars along the Neck Road on the best of summer days, but it would accommodate significantly more than it does today. While I have always been adamantly opposed to limiting access to our beaches, and any parking fee plan proposed to date has been arduous at best, or arduous and ultimately unworkable, at worst, even I am beginning to think perhaps it is time to reconsider, maybe it should become an open issue.
There was a time in this town when bonding was more discussed, not simply passed with the clichéd explanations of how little each individual issue would cost. To throw the same rationale on parking fees hardly seems an improvement. And anyone who pays any attention to Rhode Island news knows the debacle increased fees have been at State Beaches, with towns receiving less money than in the past and the bigger profits going to an out of state firm; it is not a model to be followed.
Somewhere there has to be a plan that manages without gorging beach goers, that serves the dual purpose of making roads safer and taking in more money than is spent in collections.
No one — excepting the Snowy Owls that may not return in my lifetime — wants vast spaces empty all winter, there is enough of this place that has a desolate, abandoned look when the days are shortest and already most depressing. Still, as much as there is something wonderful in the energy of summer chaos and as much as it really lasts a very short time, maybe it’s time to rethink beach parking.
Perhaps there is an upside to my biggest political regret, letting the state dump an unfunded facility on us — we, in the body of the Town, do own all the land south of Scotch and east of Corn Neck Road.