Over the years, some have commented that Middletown doesn’t have a town center.
What those folks overlook is the beaches and surrounding area, one of the true jewels of natural beauty on Aquidneck Island – and the entire region.
Late last week, a group of stakeholders gathered in the Paradise Farmhouse at the Norman Bird Sanctuary for a discussion about ways to keep the shoreline and surrounding land as pristine and natural as possible.
It’s the first time in recent memory – and possibly ever – there’s been such a meeting of the major property owners in the area to talk about ways to preserve paradise forever.
“It’s exciting to have this conversation,” said Kaity Ryan, executive director of the Norman Bird Sanctuary, a 325-acre wildlife refuge on Third Beach Road. “This is really the gem, a true historic and recreational asset and that’s all the more reason to protect it.”
Every summer as “locals” know, Middletown and the rest of the island are inundated with more than a million tourists looking to enjoy what the area has to offer.
For some, it’s the outdoor sports like sailing, tennis, surfing and golf. To others, the beaches can’t be beat. Then, there’s the shopping, restaurants and nightlife that draws so many.
However, almost to a person when asked, visitors say the largely undeveloped natural beauty of so many places on the island is one of its the major magnets.
But several at the large wooden table Friday morning with a panoramic view of Sachuest and Third beaches as well as the Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge warned if more wasn’t done to permanently protect the area, it could be lost forever.
Local residents Dwight and Susan Sipprelle said historically, much of the area was farmlands, but it is now zoned for residential use. That means it could be transformed into housing subdivisions and there was very little the community could do to stop it.
“That would be tragic and no one wants to see that…” Dwight Sipprelle said. “We’re lucky to still have it in 2021.”
“I’m thrilled we’re getting together, not only to remove the (utility) poles (along Indian Avenue and Third Beach Road) but in general,” resident Happy van Beuren said. “The area is so special and I’m happy everyone is working to keep it that way.”
Those around the table seemed to agree that preserving the beach area wasn’t only about aesthetics. The loss of that physical beauty to homes could hurt the local economy, exacerbate existing environmental issues and potentially add new ones.
Town Administrator Shawn J. Brown said Middletown continued to work on ways to limit swimming closures at area beaches and improve the overall quality of the groundwater, which directly impacts the drinking water supply. There’s about $17,000 set aside in the town’s proposed Fiscal 2022 budget to pay for a regular water quality testing.
Charles Vandermoer, who heads all the federal refuges in Rhode Island, said based on what he’d seen, the groundwater was largely fine – until it rains. That’s when problematic materials flush into area waterways like Bailey Brook and the Maidford River and cause issues downstream. Vandermoer said previous testing has shown DNA from humans, birds, horses and dogs have been found in water samples.
Whatever the cause, those part of the conversation agreed they needed to try to fix the problems. They also said the Newport water department needed to be looped into the conversation too because of their important reservoir system in the area.
“What’s happening there with the stormwater and drainage is complicated,” Brown said. “It’s a weird combination of nature and manmade engineering coming together and not always working the way it should.”
In terms of a specific game plan to preserve paradise, no formal agreements were struck late last week. However, everyone at the table agreed informally that more needed to be done and it was critical to keep the conversation going.
Peabody’s Beach owner Tom Hagerty said he was looking forward to a successful summer season and wanted to help however possible. He offered to host the next meeting at his private Third Beach Road family beach along the Sakonnet River.
“It is my favorite place on the planet,” Hagerty said. “To sit at Peabody’s Beach as the sun is setting, it’s just fantastic.”
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