SOUTH KINGSTOWN — Driving down Matunuck Beach Road on a Tuesday afternoon in November, the traffic is light and parking is easily found.
Wind the clock to later that evening and the image of the waterfront road changes. And there are mixed feelings about it in Matunuck.
Every Tuesday night is known as Ticket Tuesday at the Ocean Mist, located at 895 Matunuck Beach Road. It is a popular night where patrons flood the area leading to an influx of people on Matunuck Beach Road and its surrounding residential streets. With few legal places to park, many take their chances and park in front of no-parking signs knowingly.
“It’s a sin,” said Paul Hagerty, a resident of Prospect Road for 37 years, who made his vacation home his full-time residence 15 years ago. “Some of these houses are million dollar homes. We shouldn’t have to wake up Wednesday morning [after Ticket Tuesday] and see trash, cans and bottles all over the place.”
Parking on Matunuck Beach Road is allowed from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m., for a two-hour parking limit.
The first half of Prospect Road can often be found with cars on both sides of the roadway many nights of the week, Hagerty said. The road has become the overflow for Matunuck Beach Road on its busy nights and residential properties are being affected by illegal parking.
So far this year, 76 parking tickets have been issued on Prospect Road.
According to Hagerty, no-parking signs have been on the road “forever” but over the course of the last three or four years, the Prospect Road resident has noticed an increase in vehicles in the area, leading to an influx of cars parking in front of mailboxes and fire hydrants.
Hagerty says he has witnessed people urinating in his yard though, he admits, there’s not much local business owners can do to control their patrons’ behavior.
That’s why, he says, he doesn’t have a problem with South Kingstown police issuing parking tickets for those who violate the no-parking ordinance.
Parking in numbers
Kate Coyne-McCoy, a spokeswoman for Protect Matunuck, a group of business owners and community members who advocate for the village, said the town is targeting Matunuck Beach Road and has called the police’s increase in parking tickets a “scandal.”
The numbers show a sizable increase in police activity in the area.
According to parking ticket breakdown data provided by the South Kingstown Police Department, so far this year, the police department has issued 1,216 parking fines on Matunuck Beach Road, or 48 percent of the town’s total 2,519 tickets. This totals $30,425 in fines, though the police department said it never receives the actual amount fined.
Those numbers are on pace to exceed a record amount of tickets issued on the road in 2015. That year, police issued 1,246 parking tickets on Matunuck Beach Road, or a total of 66 percent of the town’s parking tickets.
It was a 300 percent increase from 2014 when police issued 411 parking tickets on the road. In 2013 and 2012, police issued 459 and 341 tickets, respectively.
Parking numbers have increased for Matunuck Beach Road over the four years, but parking data shows that issued parking tickets rose throughout the entire town by two and a half times from 2012 to 2016.
South Kingstown Police Chief Vincent Vespia said he receives complaints on a daily basis of illegal parking on Matunuck Beach Road and those complaints are a big part of the ticket increase.
“For this group to suggest that because we rigorously enforce the law there is a scandal attached, and that we’re doing it at the direction of the Town Manager or the Town Council, I take great umbrage in that,” he said. “I also take personal offense to the fact that this parking situation would be called a ‘scandal’ just because this group called it a ‘scandal.’”
“This is about the town targeting a group of business owners,” Coyne-McCoy said. “And why, I’m not really sure.”
Coyne-McCoy, a resident of Scituate, said she has been visiting Matunuck since she was a young girl. She has family memories in Matunuck where she recalls the hundred-foot-long beach that no longer exists due to erosion. As a community organizer, she said she wanted to start a movement to protect the Matunuck area from further destruction.
But the movement has had road bumps and stalls along the way. Now, the spike in parking tickets has brought on a different fight for her.
Coyne-McCoy said the police are at the direction of Town Manager Steve Alfred and the Town Council to increase ticket quotas for the area on the basis of antiquated parking ordinances that have not been addressed in the modern era.
Recently, she has met patrons who have received multiple tickets in Matunuck making it unappealing and unaffordable to visit the area. This in turn, she says, affects the businesses and the people who frequent Matunuck.
Vespia acknowledged directing patrols to be diligent in enforcing existing regulations in Matunuck, but said it’s solely because of increased parking violations.
Public safety meets climate change
Coyne-McCoy said the spike in tickets can be traced back to when Ocean Mist owner Kevin Finnegan proposed to repair and rebuild a personally funded sea wall along the beach at a town-owned property known as Mary Carpenter’s Beach on Matunuck Beach Road.
Town and state officials have disagreed with Finnegan and other Matunuck business owners over how best to protect the increasing erosion problems in the area. Finnegan received approval for his proposal in June to construct his own wall that he has said will protect his business. South Kingstown will also build a 202-foot sheet pile sea wall along the same road, which the town says will further protect over-topping during dangerous storms for the homes past the Ocean Mist.
Alfred has said on multiple occasions that public safety concerns trump everything else related to the topic of Matunuck’s erosion.
“The operation of the Ocean Mist is not Matunuck,” he said. “Matunuck is a village that has 240 houses that are to the east of [Finnegan’s] establishment and those folks have a right to freely pass and repass on that road.
Alfred added that he doesn’t consider increased ticketing in the area a scandal at all.
“What they’re complaining about is people who gets tickets where they are illegally parked and jeopardizing the proper travel of the road,” he said.
In Coyne McCoy’s recent letter to the editor in the Providence Journal, she said there has been no history of “impeded emergency vehicle access” on Matunuck Beach Road. She added that configurations to the road would add plenty of parking and continue to be safe.
Alfred responded to her claim saying public safety is not a reactive measure, but a proactive measure in providing protective services.
“[The tickets issued] has nothing to do with any wall or walls that are being built or proposed to be built,” Vespia said. “This department does not get involved in politics; what we get involved in is public safety.”
Vespia continued to say the uptick in tickets also has nothing to do with Finnegan, who he said is a good business owner.
Over the years, Coyne-McCoy said she has heard complaints from residents of Ocean Mist or Tara’s customers leaving trash or cutting through private property.
“But there is no way the complaints have risen to the level the tickets have risen,” she said. “That’s just crazy.”
Residents like Hagerty say the parking situation is “out of control” in the area.
He, along with two other Prospect Road residents who asked to remain anonymous, said they support the Ocean Mist and Finnegan, but said they won’t disregard their issues with illegal parking in their residential area.
Since the beginning of the year, Hagerty said he has called police less than a half dozen times. The other residents interviewed said they had never reached out to police.
Hagerty has a cut-out of Coyne-McCoy’s letter to the editor on his refrigerator.
“Let her walk in my shoes and see what it looks like here,” he said pointing in its direction. “Have her spend a Tuesday night here.”
Coyne-McCoy said she finds the idea that because she doesn’t live in the area that she is working on someone else’s behalf offensive.
“I am a proud Rhode Islander who wants to protect a beautiful, iconic place,” she said. “It’s irrelevant where I live. I live in Rhode Island.”
Is there a solution for Matunuck?
Without getting into specifics, Vespia said outdated ordinances should be reviewed and that some parking access should be allowed in certain Matunuck roads through a traffic engineering study.
Coyne-McCoy said she has researched the opportunity for an independent investigation of the issuance of parking tickets on Matunuck Beach Road. She has spoken to State Police, who say the town’s mayor, or in this case Council President Abel Collins, would need to spearhead the investigation.
But Coyne-McCoy doesn’t see any hope in this happening because she believes Collins will be controlled by Alfred. Instead, she submitted a formal request to the Attorney General to investigate the issue.
“I have no objection to an investigation,” said Vespia, who added that he was offended by Coyne-McCoy’s allegations. “What will be determined is that we rigorously enforce the existing ordinances. If there is an investigation, I’m going to call Kate Coyne McCoy as the first witness under oath and she can testify as to all her knowledge of a ‘scandal’.”
Alfred said people should expect parking tickets to continue if their cars are illegally parked.
“If she’s really there to preserve Matunuck, you’d think that public safety should be foremost in her mind,” he said.