Rhode Island AG supports designation of Spray Rock Road as public right of way | Westerly

WESTERLY — The Rhode Island Attorney General has returned an opinion to the Coastal Resources Management Council supporting and strongly advising the council to approve and designate Spray Rock Road as a public right of way to the Westerly waterfront.

In a letter to sent to the council on Monday, Attorney General Peter F. Neronha said he “strongly supported” the CRMC’s anticipated affirmation and design of Spring Avenue extension in Westerly, now known as Spray Rock Road, as a right of way. A review determined that between 1886 and 1948, there were five separate recorded plats that depicted the road running south from Ninigret Avenue.

Neronha said there is strong evidence that the Spring Avenue Extension was formally dedicated, as well, with the most identifiable dedication shown in the plat from 1920.

“There is strong uncontradicted evidence for the CRMC right-of-way subcommittee to determine that Spring Avenue is a public right-of-way to the shore. An official CRMC design would secure the public’s right to access and enjoy this waterfront access point permanently and empower the Attorney General to defend it,” Neronha said. “It is time to ensure Spring Avenue is permanently and forever public and free of the private encroachments that have unlawfully hindered access to the shore in recent decades.”

The ruling comes following a years-long process that eventually led the Western Town Council to request an opinion and ruling from CRMC in late 2020. Under the state’s constitution, the law protects a citizen’s right to fish from the shoreline, gather seaweed, swim and to walk along the shoreline. The rights of way provide access to enjoy those rights, but have become the subject of intense debate and questions over whether specific rights of way are available for public use or should be deemed private property.

The Weekapaug right of way, also known as the Spring Avenue right of way, has been the topic of discussion for over 14 years now. In 2008, the town hired Attorney Charles Soloveitzik, who found “conflicting evidence for the proposition that Spring Avenue is a public/town road or public right-of-way to the ocean.” After considerable review, the council initially accepted Soloveitzik’s opinion after receiving further input from the current town attorney, but eventually agreed in November 2020 to ask CRMC to research the matter after backlash from citizens.

CRMC is the state agency with the authority to designate and enforce public rights of way to the shoreline and Spring Avenue/Spray Rock Road was not on the CRMC list of approved rights of way when the town requested the ruling.

The attorney general’s opinion said that, after considerable review recently, there is strong evidence that the Spring Avenue Extension was incipiently dedicated, particularly as it relates to a 1920 plat.

“The 1920 Plat shows Spring Avenue Extension as an extension of Spring Avenue: Spring Avenue Extension has the same line weight and style as the connected Spring Avenue, Spring Avenue Extension does not have any building setback lines or a lot number (indicating that it is indeed a road, and not a building lot), it is not labeled as ‘private,’ and it is the same width as the rest of the road,” Neronha said.

He noted that in 1942, when the Weekapaug Fire District itself acquired multiple lots, those deeds specifically referenced the 1920 plat and notes that there is nothing in the 1920 plat or in any previous first-generation deeds that refer to the plat to indicate that Spring Avenue Extension was ever intended to be a private road.

Citing the 2005 Rhode Island case of Newport Realty, Inc. v. Lynch, which states that “unless the plat itself, by specific language, broken lines, or other marks, or the deeds indicate otherwise, sale of lots with reference to the plat is an incipient dedication that the roads are offered for public use, pending official action or public user.”

“While there does not appear to have been an official acceptance of the right-of-way by the government, there is evidence of public acceptance; that evidence includes historical aerial and other photos, postcards, and other materials that document public use of the ROW and adjacent areas from the late 1800’s through the present,” Neronha said.

Messages to local and state officials seeking further comment were not returned Wednesday.