LITTLE COMPTON — The Town of Little Compton goes to Superior Court this Thursday at 10 a.m. to try to get an injunction to stop what it calls a private commercial parking lot from operating at 5 Ocean Drive, just a few hundred yards up the road from South Shore Beach.
The parking lot is located on 1.79 acres of private property. For weeks, especially this summer and last, but going back to 2012, neighbors have complained about a large number of cars — on one occasion, by police count, as many as 130-150 — that park on or in front of the property.
Town records list the owner of 5 Ocean Drive as the Hennessey Trust, of which the apparent principal is Dale Hennessy, 71. There are five rental bungalows or cottages on the Ocean Drive property. Mr. Hennessey said he lives in one of them.
"The crux of the matter is that Little Compton says I'm operating a commercial parking lot," Mr. Hennessey said Sunday. "I've asked them what justification they have for saying it's a commercial parking lot. I've asked them six times — four times in letters and two times in talks with officials. They've given me zero, zip, nada. Governments have a responsibility to explain how they arrive at their guidelines, what their guidelines mean. Commercial parking is not defined in any of the town documents."
"I do not charge, I do not ask, nothing is required. They can park for free," Mr Hennessey said. "If someone wants to show their gratitude," he said, "I accept their gratitude. You can call it what you want. I didn't ask for it, I didn't require it."
Last Thursday night, following an executive session, the Town Council voted unanimously to approve a lawsuit filed earlier in the day by Town Solicitor Richard Humphrey in Newport County Superior Court seeking the injunction against the parking activity.
"We've had a series of neighbors complain, a number of whom were at the council meeting Thursday," said Council President Robert Mushen on Friday.
The town has attempted for some time to bring a halt to the parking activity, Mr. Mushen said, "and we weren't getting any response."
"The neighbors believe, and we concur, that the parking activity is contrary to the health and safety of the people who live there or who pass through the area on their way to the beach," Mr. Mushen said.
Although Mr. Hennessey attends to the parking lot — he is reported by police to sometimes sit in a chair at the end of his driveway along South Shore Road, and walk around and collect "donations" from those who park there — Mr. Hennessey was not present at the council meeting.
The town claims the Ocean Drive parking lot requires pedestrians to walk unsafely to the beach along the road, which has no sidewalks and carries traffic in both directions.
"There's no place to walk. The road has no shoulders. It makes it dangerous for the walkers as well as the motorist on the road, " said Chief Marion. " If the road were wide enough to walk, I would be less concerned, but the vehicles have to swerve to get around the walkers. I am very concerned there's going to be some sort of accident. There's more people than ever before. The last thing we want is for anyone to get hurt."
The town building and zoning official, Daniel Joubert, in a cease and desist letter Aug. 9, 2017, said Mr. Hennessey would need "written permission from the Town Council" to allow his "customers/clients/friends the ability to walk on a Town Road during the busiest time of the year."
"That's unconstitutional, it's crazy," said Mr. Hennessey.
The town also states that the tenants in the five bungalows are imperiled by the surrounding parked cars, which could prevent access by emergency vehicles. It also says there is no plan by Mr Hennessey (the Trust) to deal with environmental concerns from oil and gas spillage.
Apart from safety issues, the town claims Mr. Hennessey — through the Hennessey Trust — is operating a "commercial off-street parking facility" in a residential zone.
The town says the parking facility "is not a lawful use in a residential zone" — it's listed as not a "permissible use" in the zoning use table — and is therefore in violation of town zoning ordinances.
"He feels he's not in violation of zoning laws by parking private vehicles on his property, that's his feeling," Police Chief Buzzy Marion said last Thursday before the council meeting.
"It's when the beach parking lot gets full at about 10-10:30 in the morning that the beach lot closes. And that's when people tend to get directed to the parking on private property — when they see the sign along the road," said Chief Marion.
There have been 18-19 separate complaints in 2016 and 2017, to which police have responded, he said.
"He's asking for donations. He's not charging a set fee," Chief Marion said.
On Sunday, August 20, about 11:30 in the morning, for example, Patrolman Caitlin Farrar said she "spoke to two male parties that were walking out of the Hennessey driveway. The male parties stated they had parked their vehicle there so they could go to South Shore Beach. Also they stated that Hennessey had asked them for a charitable donation and they had given him $10 for parking."
Patrolman Farrar said that on the same occasion she had seen "a female standing out in the road directing traffic into Hennessey's property," and that there were approximately 80-90 vehicles parked on Hennessey's property at the time.
On other occasions officers noted that Mr. Hennessey was standing at the driveway entrance to his parking area when they arrive following a complaint.
Patrolman Farrar said she informed Mr. Hennessey about the complaint she was responding to, and he said "he understood and thanked me for informing him. Hennessey also stated that he wished the department would file these complaints as a nuisance call since he does not believe he is doing anything wrong."
About two hours later that same day, Patrolman Farrar was dispatched again to Mr. Hennessey's property, responding to yet another complaint. When she got there, she said in her report, "I observed approximately 130-150 vehicles." She took photos, she said, and talked briefly with Mr. Hennessey, telling him that police had received two more complaints about his parking.
"It should be noted," she wrote, "that while speaking with Hennessey, I did observe a large amount of US currency in Hennessey's left breast pocket."
"I strictly stay away from suggesting anything, " Mr. Hennessey said when contacted by the Sakonnet Times on Sunday. "Whatever happens, happens. I clearly tell them I'm not asking them for anything. I explain I'm not charging them anything."
Cease and desist orders
Apart from the multiple times police have responded to neighbor complaints, the town has delivered four cease and desist orders from the zoning official to Mr. Hennessey: on July 9, 2012; July 19, 2016; September 7, 2016; and August 9. 2017.
The orders state that Mr. Hennessey is being assessed a penalty of $500 for each violation, and to date (Aug. 9) has accumulated fines totaling $3,500.
In response, Mr. Hennessey has not ceased operating the parking lot. "I am not operating and did not operate a commercial parking lot," he wrote in response to the Sept.7 cease and desist order last year.
The Little Compton police department, he wrote on Sept. 13, 2016, "has engaged in and, through the complicity of the town authorities, are engaging in a pattern and practice of denying the Hennessey Trust property rights guaranteed it under the Constitution of the United States of America and the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations through continued harassment and deliberate misapplication of laws."
Mr. Hennessey believes he being "unjustly singled out and harassed," he wrote last September. "I would like to suggest that the Police Department, instead of harassing me, which they did on several occasions, would respond to any complaints pertaining to my property by categorizing them as 'nuisance' complaints because they certainly have no merit whatsoever."