2016-11-03 / Front Page

Private Cliff Walk Fence Riles Officials

By Olga Enger


Officials are frustrated after a Bellevue Avenue family installed a fence approximately 18 inches into the freshly paved Cliff Walk, resulting in a 16 percent loss of public access. (Photos courtesy of Clean Ocean Access) Officials are frustrated after a Bellevue Avenue family installed a fence approximately 18 inches into the freshly paved Cliff Walk, resulting in a 16 percent loss of public access. (Photos courtesy of Clean Ocean Access) A Bellevue Avenue family is pushing back after they illegally constructed a fence on the freshly repaired Cliff Walk.

“It sets a potentially devastating precedent,” said Cliff Walk Commission Chair Peter Janaros, who submitted a formal objection to the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC), along with local nonprofit Clean Ocean Access.

In April, Ann and Lee Warner, of 734 Bellevue Ave., constructed the fence without a CRMC permit, violating the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Program in that it is within 200 feet of a coastal feature. The new fence replaced a similar chain link fence that did not encroach on the walkway.

“We issued the owners a violation this past May, and they are seeking an as-built permit,” said CRMC’s Laura Dwyer.


In 1975, the Cliff Walk was the first attraction in New England to be designated as a National Recreation Trail and is a principal tourist attraction for the state. In a 2010 ruling, the Rhode Island Supreme Court confirmed the city maintains “undisputed” authority over the easement, by both regulation and maintenance, after a man suffered catastrophic injuries from a fall off the Cliff Walk. In 1975, the Cliff Walk was the first attraction in New England to be designated as a National Recreation Trail and is a principal tourist attraction for the state. In a 2010 ruling, the Rhode Island Supreme Court confirmed the city maintains “undisputed” authority over the easement, by both regulation and maintenance, after a man suffered catastrophic injuries from a fall off the Cliff Walk. The concern for the commission is that the new fence cuts approximately 15-18 inches into the Cliff Walk, removing roughly 284 square feet of public space, according to COA measurements. That adds up to a nearly 16 percent loss of public space from the area, which is located near the southeast entrance of the walk.

“Public access is our charter as a commission,” said Janaros. He plans to present the issue to City Council this month, anticipating that councilors will also send letters of opposition to CRMC.

Cliff Walk is a public easement over private property, which has required monitoring since it was developed into a recreational walk in the 19th century. At that time, volunteers moved rocks aside, homeowners neatened their portions of the walk, and others built tunnels to make the trail more accessible to the public. In a 2010 ruling, the Rhode Island Supreme Court confirmed the city maintains an “undisputed” authority over the easement, by both regulation and maintenance, after a man suffered catastrophic injuries from a fall off the Cliff Walk.

Intensifying frustrations for officials, the fence was installed into the recently paved walk, which was repaired as part of a $4 million project, funded by federal money earmarked for Hurricane Sandy repairs.

“This new fence not only encroached on the public right-of-way, but it damaged the walk after public money was spent to repair the area,” said Janaros.

The Cliff Walk Commission typically enjoys amicable relationships with property owners, which include individuals, the Preservation Society and Salve Regina University, said Janaros.

“Usually property owners come to the Cliff Walk Commission first, before they apply for a CRMC permit, so we are able to work through issues collaboratively. That is how we obviously prefer to do things,” he added.

Since May, communications have gone back and forth through CRMC and the Warners, yet the fence remains in the public right-of way.

“I don’t know why they don’t want to move it. There is no reason for it. That’s part of what makes it so frustrating,” said Janaros, who is a former director of engineering of the Turnpike and Bridge Authority.

“I’m a realist before I’m an environmentalist,” said COA’s Executive Director Dave McLaughlin. “If they did some research that deemed that the fence belonged in that location, I would understand. But I don’t have any reason why they are unable to move the fence.”

The Warners, who use a Maryland mailing address, purchased the home in 1999, according to city records. They did not respond to phone calls for comment.

On Oct. 19, CRMC issued a public notice regarding the Warners’ permit application, which does not reference the extension into the Cliff Walk.

The application requests to “remove existing 238 L.F of 6-foot-high galvanized chain link fence on west property border and replace with new 6-foot-high galvanized chain link fence of same type and size as existing.”

“It’s like asking for forgiveness instead of permission,” said McLaughlin, who also sits on the Cliff Walk Commission.

The impact of Cliff Walk hit local news last month, after a recent study conducted by Salve Regina confirmed that Cliff Walk attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors to Newport every year. Newport City Councilors acknowledged the study at their Oct. 12 meeting.

“Cliff Walk is one of the most important, if not the most important, attractions of Newport,” said Mayor Jeanne-Marie Napolitano at that meeting.

After the 30-day public input period, which ends on Nov. 19, CRMC staff will complete their reports. If the fence is not moved, CRMC will schedule a hearing before their council.

“Our hope is they will just move the fence before it goes to a hearing,” McLaughlin said.

Any individual may petition the CRMC application through sworn testimony at the council hearing. A written request to appear must include a current mailing address, email and contact number. Send requests to Oliver Stedman Government Center, 4808 Tower Hill Road, Suite 116, Wakefield, RI 02879 before Nov. 19. The public notice may be found at crmc.ri.gov under applications/public notices.

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