2016-07-21 / Around Town

Residents Complain About Beachfront Fence

By Olga Enger

The recently constructed 215-foot-long wooden fence at the former Atlantic Beach Club property has generated a lively conversation. Read comments on Newport This Week's Facebook page. (Photo by Lynne Tungett) The recently constructed 215-foot-long wooden fence at the former Atlantic Beach Club property has generated a lively conversation. Read comments on Newport This Week's Facebook page. (Photo by Lynne Tungett) A newly constructed fence that stands over six-feet tall and spans the parking lot at Newport Beach House in Middletown has residents up in arms that it blocks the ocean view and disconnects Purgatory Road from the beach.

Longwood Events of Boston, which also own Belle Mer on Goat Island, purchased Johnny’s Atlantic Beach Club for $12 million on Jan. 1, 2016 to convert it to a luxury beachfront wedding venue.

“I saw the fence and thought, ‘You have to be kidding me.’ We are so used to seeing that clear view of the water,” said Middletown Councilor Paul Rodrigues at the July 18 council meeting, after several residents spoke up against the enclosure during the public forum.

“We have all received calls about the fence,” said Town Council President Robert Sylvia, proposing that the town look into options.

“I’m sad. I’m in shock,” said Barbara Wright, who grew up walking across the street to the beach from the house her great-grandfather built at 76 Purgatory Road in 1923.

“I was feeling great about the Newport Beach House. They had quieted my concerns at the zoning meeting and through conversations with management. Their renovations were beautiful. But for all their talk about being good neighbors, they turned around and constructed this enormous screen. They also moved the entrance directly in front of our driveway,” said Wright.

At the June 20 council meeting, councilors, along with many residents, supported the venue’s request to expand alcohol service and live music to the beach. As part of the two-hour discussion, Longwood invited Natalie Volpe, president of Goat Island South Condominium

Association, to testify to their 10-year relationship as cooperative neighbors in Newport. Although councilors voiced concerns about beach access, Longwood attorney Brian Bardorf repeatedly assured their pledge was “to maintain open, unobstructed public use of the beach.”

“They pretend like everything is hunky-dory to get what they want and then one day you wake up and you have lost your view, your entire quality of life has changed. It’s very sneaky,” said Middletown resident Cameron Clark, who also spoke before council at the July 18 meeting. Overnight the area lost its beach feel, which has been a defining factor of the neighborhood for generations, said Clark.

“It’s always been a great beach community. It’s very emotional to have that taken away,” he added.

In a June interview about the renovations with Newport This Week, Newport Beach House pointed to the exterior painting, but did not reference plans to enclose the property (NTW, “Newport Beach House Set to Tie Knots,” June 9).

The town approved a permit for the fence on June 29, according to records. Construction began on July 5.

“We are aware of the concerns and we have been working with the town to carefully stay within all ordinances and permitting. The right-of-way has not been obstructed, nor do we have any plans of obstructing it,” said Nichole Wardle, Longwood Events director of sales and marketing.

When asked about the neighbor’s concerns, Wardle said “change is always difficult.”

“This has been a big transition for the community and for us. We are a completely different type of business then previously here and we look forward to continue to make a positive impact on Middletown,” Wardle continued. “We are aware of two concerned neighbors, but we have also received many compliments and support from other neighbors on how we are increasing the property values, as they are listing our business as a focal point in rental ads.”

She added the venue is “focused on bringing in a controlled environment that maintains the beauty of the natural coastline.”

“What they did was disingenuous,” said Bill Doré, who lives across the street. “They may have the permits, but it’s not in the spirit of being a good neighbor. I was told by their manager they put up the fence to contain litter, but let’s face it. It’s a privacy fence.”

He pointed to the Atlantic District Master Plan, which is a planning board guide to transform the area “into a vibrant, walkable commercial area.” The plan specifies buildings should be designed to “maintain the views and vistas of the water by leaving the spaces between buildings.”

Town Solicitor Peter Regan clarified to Newport This Week the Atlantic District Master Plan is used for town-controlled projects such as transportation, but it is not a binding document for private development.

However, Town Administrator Shawn Brown said the town plans to reach out to the Newport Beach House regarding the concerns.

“It is ultimately under the control of the Newport Beach House,” Brown said.

The new fence has also raised concerns about the venue’s intention to protect public beach access.

“A group of us do fish down there,” Clark said. “When it was the ABC, we would always pick up our stuff to respect the bride. We aren’t out to mess up anyone’s picture, but they are making hints that they want us out for the entire reception.”

The Newport Beach House owns the beach out to the high water mark; beyond there, the beach is public domain under state law. The Rhode Island Constitution protects public rights to walk, swim, and fish along the shore. According to the Coastal Resources Management Council, public access to the shoreline has played a critical role in Rhode Island history and has been essential for fishing, transportation, military defenses, and even providing seaweed for farmland.

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