Head over to the Weekapaug section of Westerly with a beach chair and a copy of an old map, and you’ll be disappointed when you get to what’s commonly known as “Spring Avenue Extension.”

On paper and in old photographs, it might look like a path down to the beach sand and Atlantic Ocean, but today it’s blocked off by a chain link fence and overgrown vegetation. The Weekapaug Fire District, a quasi-municipal entity in the upscale beach community that owns shoreline property and doesn’t directly fight fires, claims that it owns the parcel and has blocked it off to prevent the public from walking through it.

But a retired assistant attorney general for Rhode Island who headed the office’s environmental division for 31 years is now trying to open the path up for public use. The attorney, Michael Rubin, has submitted a legal argument to the state Coastal Resources Management Council, the state body in charge of adjudicating shoreline fights, saying that Spring Avenue Extension is really a public right of way. Rubin says he has uncovered previously overlooked evidence that amounts to a “smoking gun” in the case.

Rubin argues that an April 1939 plat map recorded in Westerly Town Hall with the endorsement of town officials shows the path was accepted by the town as a public right of way. Once it went public, Rubin says, it could never be made private without official proceedings, regardless of the intentions and actions of the Weekapaug Fire District.

In light of all the evidence, Rubin said the fire district’s “opposing argument rests on an omission,” and its ongoing actions to block off the right of way to the public amount to “a campaign of white collar vigilantism.” 

“I do believe that this is a land grab,” Rubin said. “This is an egregious land grab on the part of the fire district, and I think the fire district knows better.”Rubin submitted his argument to the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council on Tuesday. The agency is evaluating the right of way after the Westerly Town Council sent the case to the CRMC following public criticism of the town’s failure to designate it public. 

The town council made the decision not to recognize the path, a small stretch of land roughly about the length of a basketball court, as public based on the findings of a report by a local attorney the town hired more than a decade ago to investigate the property’s history.

Westerly Town Council President Sharon Ahern did not respond to an interview request sent Tuesday morning.

Since retiring from the attorney general’s office in 2018, Rubin has represented Friends of the Waterfront in Newport in cases related to shore access. He presently serves on a new state House commission studying shoreline access in Rhode Island.

Rubin said he took on the Spring Avenue Extension case independently after seeing activists speak out about it online. 

The right of way in question is located at the start of the Quonochontaug Barrier Beach, an undeveloped 1.7 mile stretch of shoreline almost entirely controlled by a network of special fire districts and district-aligned conservation groups. All shoreline below the mean high tide line is indisputably public land, per the Rhode Island state Constitution. 

At the Spring Avenue Extension site, there is a small row of public parking. As it stands, however, the public has no way of accessing the ocean without trespassing on private property.

The right of way was recorded as part of the original subdivision of the Weekapaug Beach Company, a now-dissolved real estate firm started in 1910 to buy and sell property in the summer cottage community.

The Weekapaug Fire District says the right of way belonged to the beach company for decades until the fire district acquired it in 2015.

Rubin said he sees the case as touching on broader issues that go beyond a limited dispute over a path to the shore. In his opinion, the public-at-large has an interest in the integrity of the property law system and people respecting it. 

“These cases tend to get cast as sort of populist revolts against the established order,” he said. “But in fact, what’s going on in this instance is that...[public rights are] being usurped by the Weekapaug Fire District.”

The fire district presents a different story. District officials declined an interview request, saying they do not comment on right of way cases under review. But the district said it has received Rubin’s submission and will respond to CRMC after reviewing it. 

The Weekapaug Fire District’s argument in the right of way case is outlined in a 152-page document submitted to the state Coastal Resources Management Council by the fire district’s attorney, Thomas J. Ligouri, Jr, earlier this summer.

Ligouri, whom public records show the district is paying $350 per hour to represent it on “issues concerning beach access, rights-of-way and related matters,” writes in his submission that plat map evidence accepted by town officials shows the Spring Avenue Extension right of way was not intended to be public. 

Liguori points to plat maps recorded in Westerly Town Hall in the 1940s that explicitly state owners who bought property from the Weekapaug Beach Company “Have a Right Of Way To The Atlantic Ocean Over Spring Ave Extension.” The maps, however, do not directly label Spring Avenue Extension as private.

This is not the first time Spring Avenue Extension has been the subject of public debate. The history of the right of way came under question in 2007, and the town of Westerly hired a local attorney to research the case. That attorney, who had previously also represented local landowners, reported to the town solicitor that the right of way -- also called "Spring Lane" -- likely belonged to the Weekapaug Beach Company, and he was informed “the assets of the Weekapaug Beach Company are being acquired by the Weekapaug Fire District.”

Around the time of the 2008 scrutiny of the right of way, the Weekapaug Beach Company, which had come under control of the Weekapaug Fire District, began taking actions to bolster its claim that Spring Avenue Extension is not public. 

According to the fire district’s submission to the state Coastal Resources Management Council, the district became the sole shareholder in the Weekapaug Beach Company in May of 2008.

Then, in September 2008, the beach company submitted a “Notice of Revocation” to the town, rescinding any potential steps owners of Spring Avenue Extension might have taken to offer the path as a public right of way.

Michael Rubin said that action by the fire district was “an affront” and “something that the Rhode Island Supreme Court would frown upon.”

“I think they’re doing tactics that are heavy handed and I’m not going to say ‘illegal,’ but ‘extralegal,'" Rubin said.

In 2015, the Weekapaug Beach Company, with the fire district listed as its only shareholder, transferred the Spring Avenue Extension property to the fire district “in consideration of $1 and other valuable consideration.” 

Shoreline rights activists have long complained that the fire district has overreached on the right of way and town officials have not done enough to advocate on behalf of the public, instead giving the fire district an advantage in the battle over Spring Avenue Extension. 

According to the fire district’s filing with the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council, the day after attorney Michael Rubin sent an email to Westerly Town Solicitor William Conley informing the town of his views on the right of way case, the fire district’s attorney filed an addendum to his own argument with CRMC contesting the points he now knew Rubin made in the email sent directly to Conley.

CRMC spokesperson Laura Dwyer said via email that the agency has no updates on the status of the right of way, or ROW.

"This potential ROW is a complex one," she said, "and as such, is going to take some time."

This story has been updated with response from CRMC.

Alex Nunes can be reached at anunes@thepublicsradio.org