If the town council adopts the suggestion approved unanimously by the town’s Coastal Access Improvement Committee Wednesday night, enrolled members of the Narragansett Indian Tribe would receive free Narragansett Town Beach passes, waiving walk-on and parking fees.

Committee Chair Cinna Zerquera-Martin says she’s optimistic the town council will approve the fee waiver by the start of this summer’s beach season.

“Narragansett Town Beach bears their name; the town of Narragansett bears their name,” Zerquera-Martin said of the tribe. “We feel that this is long overdue and is the right thing to do. And we're doing it now.”

Town Council President Jesse Pugh, who is a liaison to the coastal access committee, said town councilors will likely take up the proposal at their meeting on May 16, and he plans to make a motion then to adopt the changes. 

Practically speaking, Pugh said, the change would be small and “it’s not going to make a big difference to anyone in town.” But, he said, “It's a big change symbolically, and it'll be great for the town of Narragansett to be the first town ever in Rhode Island to do it.”

The proposal drew sharp opposition at Wednesday’s meeting. A small group of residents spoke out, with one person calling the fee waiver discriminatory and others suggesting it could lead to overcrowding at Narragansett Town Beach. 

During a separate discussion on making Native American land acknowledgement statements before town meetings, Pugh says one attendee stood up, shouted, and walked out of the meeting. He called the meeting “unruly” at times.

“It was ugly,” he said. “It was extremely uncomfortable, tense, disappointing. And it was very similar to the tone and opinions that we get when we have these workshops [on shoreline access issues].”

The committee did hear from one supporter of the fee waiver, Narragansett tribal member Randy Noka, who received applause after his comments.

“He definitely changed the tone of the room, and it settled down,” Pugh said. “I don't know if it changed anyone's mind…Everyone who spoke [against the waiver] said how much they understand the trials and tribulations of the tribe, and how unfair things have been through history. However, they're not willing to support this.”

For Pugh and others, the resistance isn’t surprising. In recent years, there have been ongoing tensions between beachgoers and Narragansett property owners who’ve pushed for policies at the public beach that are more favorable to full-and part-time residents.

Some residents have called for a cap on the number of people at the beach, parking lot restrictions, a limit to RIPTA bus service to Narragansett Town Beach, a police officer to patrol the beach on an ATV, and an entrance where non-residents can have their belongings searched for weapons.

“They're very concerned about what some folks in town think is a private beach,” said Zerquera-Martin, chair of the Coastal Access Improvement Committee. “It is not. It is open to the public.”

Speaking of the ongoing push to institute a fee waiver for members of the Narragansett Indian Tribe, she said, “This has been a challenging experience but a worthwhile experience, and one I will continue to pursue to the end when it's resolved and we're able to bring the tribe back onto their beach.”

Alex Nunes can be reached at anunes@thepublicsradio.org