Westerly beach access dispute in court

By: Alexandra Cowley


2.5 miles of beach in Westerly are being fought over in Kent County Superior Court. The stretch of sand has been at the crest of a decades long debate over whether it should be public or private. Now, the Rhode Island Attorney General's office is suing beach front property owners for blocking the public from parking their chairs.

91–year–old John Stellitano has taken the walk across Atlantic Avenue for 44 years. Crossing the street from his property to the public walkway. The beach is where his family enjoys the summer. But in 1970 Stellitano says he was cited for trespassing on a private beach. He says the state told him if he wanted to use the beach, he had to own beach property.

Stellitano said, “it put us in a situation where we just decided we had to buy a piece of land if we wanted to enjoy the dry sand area.”

So Stellitano and 7 others put their money together and bought an empty beach-side lot giving them all the beach access they wanted. But their private sand has a problem with getting packed with public beach–goers.

“You do get situations where it becomes really uncomfortable for property owners to say we can enjoy our beach, when in reality we can't, because there are perpetrators who are not obeying the law,” Stellitano said.

The private-public beach debate has heated up in the last few decades, motivating the Attorney General's office to take it to court. A trial is ongoing to dispute the land rights of more than 20 property owners and the public.

Tim Brennan is a Westerly resident and owns the Two Little Fish restaurant. Brennan says they're still recovering from Hurricane Sandy.

“I'm all in favor of access for the public to get to the beaches. The more people who are down here, the better it is for a business man like me. Every customer you get in this economy is important. You want as much exposure to as many people as you can get,” said Brennan.

The state and attorneys for the property owners will be diving into property records that date back to the early 1900's to argue the intention of the original owners. It could take weeks, even months, for the judge to rule on what will happen with that 2.5 mile stretch of land.

(C) WLNE-TV 2014