Thu, 08/13/2020 - 5:30pm

Dirt roads of Block Island

To the Editor:

Recently, I was walking down a dirt road I have walked many times before, the sun shining overhead and through the canopy trees, with thoughts of family and friends soon to be joined on a magnificent beach; to leave behind the problems of the mainland, take refuge from the pandemic and for a brief moment feel normal. Suddenly, I was stopped by a resident who lived off the road I was walking and who told me it was a private road; there was no beach access. Although I had used this road to access the beach every year for at least the past 35 years, along with numerous friends and family, some who have used this road to access the beach for generations, I was now called a trespasser on a road that was not mine to use or enjoy; an historic beach access lost by decree. My heart dropped, my anger management began to fail and my mind raced through my now decades of Block Island experiences and memories.

Many years ago, when I was just a boy, my Block Island friends and I would travel throughout the island to all points, hills, and beaches; by dirt road, trail, bluff path, pond, roadside and way to our favorite destinations. Together, we experienced a unique freedom to travel the entire island, which I described at the time to tourists the summer I worked at the Chamber of Commerce in the 1980s as “seven miles by three miles in a triangular form.” I also remember stating there was no real way to get lost on the island, as all roads eventually ended up where you needed to go. From the airport lights to the second bluffs, from the dump beach to Gracie’s Cove, the island was a place upon which our hopes, dreams and fears were realized, actualized and comforted. Many times, this occurred after midnight at the Number One Café.

As we all know, Block Island is a special place for many reasons, some personal and some for the public good. These include great people, beautiful beaches, fresh seafood and music, majestic harbors, a protected environment and full public access to all beaches. In our time, those who have attempted to or have been successful in taking away public access have disappointed the community, not only for the illegal act of denying the public access but also for the audacity to steal and diminish the island’s character and experience, the freedom of their fellow citizens, and the rights reserved to all of us before they were ever born.

Public access to the beaches is the way we treat each other well, and the denial of access affects not only those who have historically been afforded access, but also to those unknown persons who have yet to experience Block Island through that public access. Like the decision whether or not to use a mask to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, those adversely affected will not be known to those who break faith with our shared burden and purpose.

Notwithstanding the legal issues surrounding easements, both prescriptive and by deed, public policy considerations and the substantial increase in property values for all landowners that are not adjacent to the ocean or two harbors, which by the way is almost all landowners, full and unencumbered public beach access is an example of true American democracy and freedom. Access to the beaches is not an exclusive private right of a few.

On Block Island, everyone is connected because everyone knows someone who knows someone else you know. Therefore, we should all recognize that we share a common purpose to protect Block Island, and that reasonable and fair compromises can be made to provide public access to the beaches while ensuring the quiet enjoyment of property owners that must provide this access through the dirt roads existing on their properties. And of course, the burden of maintaining this access should be shared as well.

For my part, I hope we take care of each other as Americans and continue to walk down these dirt roads together.

Charles W. McMellon Jr.

West Side Road


Thank you, BIPCo

To the Editor: 

We live on Mitchell Lane and during the recent storm, our electricity went out. As soon as the wind died down a bit, crews were on the scene and the power was restored in less than an hour from when it was lost. What fantastic work! Block Island is fortunate to have such dedicated and expert workers at the Block Island Power Co.


David Brody

Barbara Mendelson


A limited time

To the Editor:

You’ve heard the story, and probably told it: “The only way to afford to live on Block Island is to keep leaving.”

Many of us rent our homes for the summer, some living aboard boats, others leaving until the shoulder season. And some of us commute off-island for days at a time for work we can’t do at home.

So I was disappointed to see new two-hour limit signs installed along those five parking spaces just below the Post Office.

Might our town fathers reconsider, if only for the off-season?

Rob Holland

Spring Street


A serious conversation is needed

To the Editor:

There’s an old truism that people get the government that they deserve, and on a national level I would have to acknowledge that today. We’ve allowed the ascendancy of our festering depths of racism, misogyny, greed, and inequality, and now we have an amoral, incompetent, malignant kleptocracy. I also cling to the hope that we are better than this, that a majority of us are kind and decent, and that we have only allowed a temporary manifestation of a loud and forceful minority.

I’ve been wondering if it’s not also true that we, as a community, get the tourism and climate that we deserve, because we let it happen. I would venture to say that a vast majority of us, including much of our business community, would prefer us to be a quieter, safer, more civil, environmentally responsible, family-friendly destination. Instead, we seem to have been hijacked by a smaller group, whose philosophy seems to be to not let anything stand in the way of more profit. Our tolerant laissez faire attitude seems to have morphed into one of permissiveness and anarchy. And our yankee independence seems to have changed into selfishness and a lack of dedication to our community.

After a disastrous Fourth some years ago, we came together and had a serious community-wide conversation. We made some changes, and I think that we stemmed the tide for a while. But now, I think that we are once again at a tipping point, where we need to decide what kind of place we want to be, and take the hard steps toward getting there. I don’t pretend to know the answers or the right things to do, but I do know that we need to get started before it’s too late.


John Spier


A branding problem

To the Editor:

I recently asked three people who had visited Block Island this summer for the first time to sum up their impression of the town in one word. Their replies were not pretty: Traffic, drunks, mopeds. Clearly Block Island has a brand problem. I’ve been coming to the island for almost 60 years and have owned a home here for the past 20, but on the mainland I work as a brand identity consultant to organizations all over the world, from museums and luxury labels, to cities, districts, and even sovereign nations. While it is often confused with advertising, the point of branding is not ad campaigns but to identify and clarify the core values and qualities of an entity (commercial, cultural, or civic) so as to create coherent policy and communication. A well-defined brand should help guide every decision: zoning laws and ferry fares, policing protocols and architectural preservation, development plans and social media communication.

In the crowded world of information overload, a coherent message is critical. If you don’t define your brand, it will be defined for you, often in ways incompatible with the civic spirit of the place. Take two examples of wildly different beach communities: Wildwood, one of the most carnivalesque sections of the Jersey Shore, and Bolinas, the Northern California municipality that has fiercely protected its bucolic small-town culture against the onslaught of tourism and tech money-driven development. Are we on a path to be Wildwood North – a freefor-all replete with chaotic attractions, packed streets, and noisy bars – or Bolinas East – a more reserved, sustainable experience with an emphasis on the natural environment? If you take those two extremes and play them out, you can see how the daily decisions we make as a community implicitly support one or the other. One brand may push to keep entry costs low, regulation light, advertise myriad attractions, and promise freedom from the perceived social restrictions and rules of the mainland. The other brand may edge prices up, impose surcharges to limit cars and mopeds, encourage hiking and biking, strictly enforce restrictions on behavior like public drunkenness, and promise refuge from the commercialization of the mainland. Both brands are entirely possible here but they are mutually exclusive. The questions are: Which one do we want? Which one should we nurture? What are we working towards?

Take the attraction question. Mopeds are often listed as one of the key attractions on Block Island — they are clearly popular – but everyone in the community is required to sacrifice something to maintain this private business that benefits a very few. Think of mopeds as a carnival ride: We have basically ceded the entire network of public roads, and the property that fronts them, as a key component of this ride. We have ceded an entire block of the town as its primary transactional space. We have ceded the general safety, peace and tranquillity of every corner of the island to its incessant horns and noise. We have ceded our health care system, EMT and rescue volunteers, our doctors, nurses, and medical center, and our emergency Life-Flight infrastructure to servicing the inevitable fallout. And while ceding so much, we have all accepted a hands-off policy wherein those who profit from the business have little or no accountability for its impact on the island culture. What do we gain in return for these sacrifices?

Many argue these attractions bring business to the island. It is important when performing a cost-benefit analysis, however, to consider the negative impact on brand and the lost opportunity as well as that gained. For every visitor who comes to the island to rent a moped or to get blind drunk, how many are repelled, vowing never to return? Is the residual income gained by maintaining this atmosphere worth the long-term reputational damage? And when do we reach the tipping point where the free-for-all brand image becomes an indelible, self-fulfilling inevitability and short-term profit continuously self-replicates a system at the cost of something more sustainable. This is a real danger because once a brand image is firmly embedded in the minds of the public, it is very difficult, and extremely costly, to change.

The problem with the short-term, Jersey Shore brand is that it generates huge profits that translate into political clout and leverage in a few hands. The equation is simple: more ferries, more people, more mopeds, more money. The slower, more sustainable path is tougher, takes collective sacrifice, more incremental returns, and significant political will to make long-term policy decisions. We are currently in the schizophrenic situation wherein we spend considerable effort and resources to protect the land of Block Island but hardly anything to protect the culture and atmosphere. I have spoken with so many island residents this summer who feel there is clearly something wrong with the path we are currently on. Do we have the will to change it? The answer is not so clear.

Michael Rock

Corn Neck Road