Near Newport’s mansions, access battle is measured in inches

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NEWPORT, R.I. (AP) — The Cliff Walk has been a Newport public thoroughfare for hundreds of years, and today it’s one of Rhode Island’s biggest tourist draws. Every year, an estimated 750,000 people stroll or hike the path that runs between the Atlantic Ocean and mansions owned by members of America’s moneyed class.

Now, a homeowner at one end of the 3.5-mile route is under fire for putting up a fence that a city commission said encroaches about 15 to 18 inches onto the walk. The commission, environmental advocates and locals are not pleased, saying it makes a crucial part of the walk — lined on both sides by a high chain-link fence — into a narrow bottleneck.

“Losing over a foot of space is a pretty good amount,” said Anya Woythaler, who lives nearby and frequently uses the Cliff Walk to access a public beach. “People should be up in arms about it.”

She and others said it got so crowded over the summer that there was little elbow room at the entrance, especially when people came through with bikes, kayaks and other gear as they headed to the beach or for a hike.

The Cliff Walk traverses land that is generally owned by private homeowners, but the public has the right to walk across it. The path is rough and narrow in rugged parts that scramble up and down cliffs. In other areas, it is wide, paved and smooth.

The home’s owners, Lee and Amy Warner, installed the 6-foot-high fence earlier this year to replace an old, rusted one. The city’s Cliff Walk Commission said the Warners took away about 15 percent of the walk along the 238-foot-long chain-link fence, leaving it 5 to 7 feet wide.

Peter Janaros, head of the city’s Cliff Walk Commission called it a “potentially devastating precedent.”

“If each of the owners decided they were going to encroach 15 percent every year, then the Cliff Walk would no longer exist,” he said.

State coastal regulators issued a violation notice to the Warners in May for installing the fence without a permit. The homeowners then applied for a permit, but objections filed by the city, the Cliff Walk Commission and several environmental groups mean the matter will be taken up by the council at a later date, a spokeswoman said.

The Warners, who live outside Baltimore, have owned the 4,800-square-foot home assessed at $3.3 million for years.

“We love Newport. We think it’s one of the most fabulous places in the country at least, if not the world,” Lee Warner said.

But, there are some downsides to living in a property where thousands of people pass by every year. A few years ago, he said, they had to install gates at the driveway because people would set up picnics in the yard.

“You always have people that are respectful, and of course a few that are not,” he said.

The fence is the same height and length as the one it replaced, he said. He would not comment on whether he agrees with officials’ contentions that it encroached up to 18 inches onto the walk, but said it does not obstruct access.

“The area outside our fence is as wide, or wider, than most of the path along the Cliff Walk at that end,” he said, adding that they are trying to do things properly. “We did hire professionals, and I have to rely on them.”

Janaros said the Cliff Walk Commission has a good relationship with homeowners, and he doesn’t understand why the Warners won’t just put the fence back the way it was.

“This is really unfortunate that this has gone this direction,” he said. “We work really closely with all the owners, but we have a responsibility to make sure that public access is maintained.”

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