As Ed McDonough recalls, Highland Beach has always been a “sleepy little hamlet,” but that has been changing ever since the city opened the Rocky Point shoreline, and it promises to even change more, whatever happens to the remaining 82 acres of the former Rocky Point Amusement park.
McDonough and his wife Kay have a house on Surf Avenue. It’s the equivalent of a city block from the water, but, because it is built on the side of a hill, it offers glimpses of the Mount Hope Bridge, Prudence Island and the open bay down to the Jamestown Bridge. Many of the homes in Highland Beach share the view, whether looking south to Newport, east to Colt State Park in Bristol or north to Conimicut Light and the distant Providence skyline.
There’s much more to Highland Beach than its proximity to Narragansett Bay. It’s a tight-knit community, partially because some families like the McDonoughs have lived there for generations and in part because of the geography. Roads are narrow. Lots are small. Houses are relatively close to one another and, in effect, Highland Beach is a dead end, an enclave with only two roads in and out.
The roots of change go back to 1995, when Rocky Point Amusement Park filed for bankruptcy. After efforts to revive the park failed and the property was auctioned, it looked like the park would be developed for housing. Luxury homebuilders Toll Brothers had a lock on the property, but the collapse of the housing market doomed their plans for 399 units of condominiums and town houses. The plans of two local developers for a scaled down development also fell victim to the recession.
In the meanwhile, the Small Business Administration, court appointed receiver for the park, closed Rocky Beach, where the park had once leased land and later it reached agreement to sell 41 acres of shoreline to the city for $4.4 million, using a combination of city, state and federal funds.
It was with the opening of that to the public that Highland Beach started to see change. While the entrance to Rocky Point is from what was the amusement park’s main gate off Rocky Point Avenue, access can also be gained at the northerly end of the park trail in Highland Beach. There is no parking lot at that end of the park and access takes knowledge of Highland Beach’s warren of roads.
“It used to be just us around here,” says Margaret Laorenza of Ogden Street.
Like her neighbors, Laorenza has seen an increase in cars parking in the neighborhood, frequently restricting traffic to a single lane and raising the prospect that emergency vehicles couldn’t access the area. She also reports motorists racing through the neighborhood, thefts, trash dropped in people’s yards and fishermen selling their catch from the back of their vehicles.
The Highland Beach access to the park is closer to one of the park’s prettier and more secluded beaches, as well as the point, a popular spot for fishermen, for which the park was named. McDonough reports watching people park in the neighborhood to walk into the park with the makings for a party, including a bouquet of balloons.
“We want people to enjoy the park. But it’s [Highland Beach] not meant to be a parking lot,” said Laorenza.
Although the park is open from dawn to dusk, Laorenza reports there are also occasional nighttime beach parties. She says “the sparks started to fly” when the city, in response to complaints of people urinating and defecating in the park, installed a porta-john near the Highland Beach gate. The city quickly relocated the porta-john.
The incident was a rally point and, when the Department of Public Works talked of constructing a 15-by-15-foot concrete block shed to house maintenance equipment near the entrance, neighbors protested. Those closest to the park thought it would obstruct views and could be the start of a much larger development of municipal buildings.
David Picozzi, DPW acting director, reasoned the shed and its contents would be less subject to vandalism and break-ins at the Highland Beach end of the park than at the parking lot at the southerly end, which is remote and out of view from area residences.
On Thursday, the mayor’s chief of staff Mark Carruolo said plans for construction of the shed are on hold.
Playing out at another level is what will become of the remaining 82 acres still under control of the SBA. The Department of Environmental Management has a recent appraisal of that land and is in talks with the SBA for state acquisition of the property using $10 million from a bond referendum approved by voters two years ago.
Assuming an agreement can be reached that is satisfactory to the Federal District Court and the state acquires the remainder of the park, a second entrance to the park could be either from the former Rocky Beach access on Palmer Avenue, or what was the park’s exit road. This would obviate Highland Beach as the closest access to the point and give the city multiple locations for the maintenance shed.
But that could take years and, in the meantime, Highland Beach residents would like some relief.
Councilman John DelGiudice has proposed a “local parking only” ordinance to deal with the situation. Another alternative has been a total ban on parking, but that would be problematic for the neighborhood.
Laorenza would like to see signage informing outsiders that park parking is available at the lot off Rocky Point Avenue and for police to more actively patrol the area.
“The word [that the park can be accessed from Highland Beach] is traveling throughout the state and beyond,” said Laorenza.
McDonough agrees the word is out.
“Once they find it, they tell their neighbors and their friends,” he said.
Col. Stephen McCartney, chief of police, said a parking ban for other than local residents would require further study by the city fathers.
“You can’t just say you can’t go there … this is a public area,” he said.
He said the department would step up patrols in response to reasonable requests. As for fishermen selling quahogs and fish from their vehicles, he said those are already violations and the department would act accordingly.
As the future of Rocky Point comes into focus, McCartney agreed that city responses taken today need to keep in mind the bigger picture of what the park could become tomorrow.