211216ind nulman

Officials from the Rose Nulman Foundation say they may shutter public access to Rose Nulman Park, a popular oceanfront area in Narragansett, by the end of the year if town and state officials don’t agree to use federal infrastructure money to pay for restoration work they say is needed to offset the effects of erosion.

NARRGANSETT, R.I. — The administrators of a privately-owned 4.5-acre scenic area providing public oceanfront  access for decades are threatening to close the property unless public officials give them millions of dollars to fix what they say is erosion damage.

Offering vistas stretching far out into the Atlantic Ocean, the Rose Nulman Park has long been a popular spot for surfers, fishermen and sightseers. But the owners say the site, at the tip of Point Judith, is at risk of collapsing and disappearing due to erosion.

The park’s owners – the private Rose Nulman Foundation – are threatening to put up a keep-out fence by the end of the month unless officials move to award federal infrastructure money to pay for land restoration work the foundation says is needed.

But local officials say they aren’t clear on what exactly the work would entail.

Jesse Pugh, town council president, said this week that the foundation thus far has not provided supporting documentation for the costs, other than a verbal estimate of about $10 million to $20 million dollars.

Pugh said it’s unlikely that the town could afford an expenditure of that magnitude, and that even if it could afford to do so, the use of municipal funds to make improvements to private property could be problematic.

Other local residents  and officials familiar with the situation say they believe the Nulman Foundation is using the threat of closure as a means to increase public pressure on the town to use some of its federal infrastructure funds, now that town budget talks are under way.

Representatives of the foundation have met and had several phone calls with town officials on the matter.

Carol Nulman, a managing partner with the foundation, wouldn’t comment on these meetings. Officials have said they have made clear the town’s position.

Nulman did comment to the Independent this week, “It’s up to the people who use this park after 30 years to use their voice to be heard.” She admitted that she wants to apply public pressure on officials.

“We just don’t have the ability to fund it directly,” Pugh told The Independent this week.

Complicating the issue further is the legal question of whether the foundation has the authority to close the park. Barring the public could violate the terms and conditions of the foundation, and perhaps even bring a penalty, according to at least one court document..

The foundation was “established for the express purpose of “preserv [ing] and maintain[ing] * * * [the Nulman property] for use as a park which is open to the public free of charge for recreation and contemplation, under the name ‘Rose Nulman Park,” according to court records.

Attractive to Sightseers

A recent Facebook post, attributed to “The Nulman Family,” said that “Unfortunately, neither the town nor the state consider the park a priority and will not grant us any of the government funds received from the federal infrastructure bill.”

The Rose Nulman Park is permanently closing by Christmas, it said, adding, “Without these funds, we cannot repair the damage caused by erosion which has made the park far too dangerous for visitors” – though the family has not publicly specified what dangers that the erosion is causing.

“If the park is a priority to you, please let your voice be heard by contacting the town and state representatives,” the foundation wrote in the post.

The property’s use as a scenic overlook dates back at least to 1993, when Saul Nulman purchased the property. The previous owners were forced to close a restaurant at the site, the Lighthouse Inn, when its septic system failed and the state wouldn’t approve a new one.

After buying the land, Saul Nulman allowed the public to park there and use the grounds to set up lawn chairs and picnic blankets. The rocky headland, in the shadow of Point Judith Lighthouse, became a vantage point from which to watch storms roll in, boats passing and surfers riding the waves.

Nulman died in 2007, and his heirs, according to court documents, were split over the disposition of the property, which he had named Rose Nulman Park in memory of his mother.

According to court documents, a 2008 settlement agreement among some members of the Nulman family, including Carol B. Nulman and Joel S. Nulman, current trustees of the Foundation, put in a penalty if public access were curtailed.

“In the event that, at any time after the date of this Agreement, the Trustees permit the Park to be used in any manner other than [as a park open to the public] then those of the Nulmans who are then serving as trustees of the Rose Nulman Park Foundation, jointly and severally, agree to pay the sum of One Million Five Hundred Thousand Dollars ($1,500,000.00) to New York Presbyterian Hospital.”

According to the same documents, the payment might be avoided if the terms of the agreement cannot continue to be met. Carol Nulman would not answer questions about whether the claim of public safety issues could be a way around this stipulation.

Saul Nulman bought the prime piece of waterfront property following other developers’ failed attempts to build on it due to a lack of sewers in the area, state environmental regulations and the rocky land composition making construction an expensive endeavor.

He said at the time he wanted the area open for public access and wanted to “give back” to the community. The property also had a closed restaurant for many years that remained empty and dilapidated until its roof collapsed.

Town officials ordered the area closed to public access until the building was removed.

Erosion of Shoreline

The average annual rate of erosion in Rhode Island is 1.9 feet, according to the state coastal council. Even though some parts of the Rhode Island shore expanded from the 1930s to the 1950s, there has been a steady pattern of loss since that has far outweighed any temporary gains.

According to published reports, the U.S. coastline is locked in a constant state of flux, the contours of beaches, bluffs, headlands and marshes shifting with waves, winds and tides.

Coastal erosion is not a gradual process. It’s episodic, dependent on periodic instances of violent weather.

A shoreline may lose two feet in one year, 10 the next. It may stay in place year after year. And then one big storm strikes and a coastal feature gets shoved back 15 feet in one go.

In the 150 years that scientists have measured changes along the New England and mid-Atlantic shoreline — regions where seas are rising faster than nearly anywhere else in the world — more than two-thirds of beaches have lost ground, according to a 2011 U.S. Geological Survey study.

Eighty-four percent of the 1,136 coastal points observed between South Dartmouth, Massachusetts and Napatree Point in Westerly are edging inland, the study found.

The state is low-lying and flat and large stretches of its coast are composed of loose deposits of sandy outwash. Those conditions, combined with its geographic location, has put Rhode Island in the cross hairs for erosion.

The land from Rhode Island’s south shore to Cape Cod is exposed to both hurricanes and nor’easters, the most destructive storms that drive change, according to Janet Freedman, geologist with the state coastal council.

Town Quandary

Even with clear environmental changes underway, town officials face a quandary with this situation.

The park-like area is a remarkable piece of land worth preserving, yet it is private land.

If help goes to one private landowner to deal with erosion, does every other private landowner in town deserve the same help with tax dollars? It is one question officials have said they could face and would have to explain if money is allocated.

Town Council President Pugh said that the town has not yet reviewed whether it could – and under what kinds of circumstances – give taxpayer money to one private landowner and not others.

If any money was ever used, “we would want an agreement that this property will remain forever available for public access,” Pugh said about one explanation for such funding.

However, funding remains the biggest issue.

“We simply cannot afford that kind of money – $10 million to $20 million – she has talked about, if it’s a real estimate. It would break our entire contingency fund for emergencies,” he added.

President Joe Biden in mid-November signed a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill into law to support $550 billion of new federal investments touching everything from bridges and roads to the nation’s broadband, water and energy systems.

Narragansett has received about $4.6 million from the federal American Rescue Plan Act. It has no estimates yet on the infrastructure act awards.

Pugh said uses of that money haven’t been decided yet. Others in government and residents have said they believe Nulman is using a dramatic public plea to get a portion before it is allocated to other needs.

Officials said that though multiple meetings have been held with Nulman on the issue, she has not supplied any professional evaluations or studies of what work would be needed.

Town and state officials said these are “must-have” documents for any serious discussion.

Nulman would not answer questions this week on that matter and whether any detailed engineering and site work has been prepared.

Pugh also said that the town has not had any discussions about buying the land and that Nulman has said it is not for sale.

This leaves the next step in the process, he said, for the Nulman Foundation to provide an actual and detailed engineering report on the specific work to be done.

“I think the money really has to come from either the state or grants for this kind of project,” he said, noting that the town did offer to give administrative assistance, such as helping to prepare requests for estimates and reviewing those submitted as well as consulting on work needed.

For her part, Nulman would only comment, “There isn’t more to say until the town/state make the park a priority.”

Write to Bill Seymour, freelance writer covering news and feature stories, at independent.southcountylife@gmail.com.

(2) comments

Gorgeous_George_W

Let them close it. They should have been planning for how to support it for years now .It's just a money grab to try and bolster the value of their property. That whole area is honestly not that attractive. This park has nice views, sure, but the way it is maintained is rather poor. Plus, you have the coast guard station right in front of it, and that land that presumably belongs to the US Gov't just to the west of it as you drive down. Talk about an eyesore. If people want a nice view, head over the fisherman's memorial. That's well maintained and the views atop the lookout are panoramic. Surfers, which I am one of, will continue to find ways to use this spot. Let's move on.

thinkProgress

I think most of us in this town agree with you. Besides, after all that money we are spending on the new state of the art library, there is no way the town can support this. This is 2021 -- more building, less environmental preservation is the way forward. The kids can see scenic views from their library computer screen...

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