Enforcement of Sandy Point Rules to Increase

Island is an important nesting area for a variety of migratory birds

By DAVID SMITH/ecoRI News contributor

Sandy Point Island was once the farthest extension of Napatree Point, a small peninsula off Watch Hill in Rhode Island. It was covered with trees until the region was struck by the Great September Gale of 1815. It has been a coastal beach since. (Google Maps)

Sandy Point Island was once the farthest extension of Napatree Point, a small peninsula off Watch Hill in Rhode Island. It was covered with trees until the region was struck by the Great September Gale of 1815. It has been a coastal beach since. (Google Maps)

Sandy Point Island in Little Narragansett Bay might have a new protector: the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS).

The current owner of the 35-acre island is the Avalonia Land Conservancy. The Connecticut land trust is working out an agreement with the FWS to provide enforcement of the nature preserve’s rules beginning this year. The island provides important nesting and feeding areas for a variety of migratory birds.

“Enforcement is a big issue,” said Avalonia board president Michele Fitzpatrick. “We have no way to enforce the rules. They (FWS) can enforce the rules during the nesting season and keep it the refuge it is supposed to be.”

She noted that for this first year the federal agency would bring out a number of enforcement personnel to show visitors that the rules will be enforced. An especially difficult problem is that visitors bring dogs to the island, which can scare away birds and disturb nests. There have even been reports of visitors shooting off fireworks.

The process for securing permits to access the island will remain the same. They will be available at the Stonington Community Center on Cutler Street in Stonington, Conn., and eventually on the FWS website.

Heather Milardo, Avalonia’s executive director, said last year 113 permits were issued. She said the main reason for the permits is to pass along the island’s rules of conduct.

The fee system is likely to continue, but the cost is likely to be reduced, Milardo said. Last year, the fee for a daily pass was $5. The fees for an individual season pass from Memorial Day to Labor Day ranged from $50-$70. The cost for a season pass for a family ranged from $70-$90, and season pass for senior citizens was $25.

The mile-long barrier island is a popular summer hangout and picnic spot for boaters. It was once connected to Napatree Point, but that connection was severed during the 1938 Hurricane. It is between Watch Hill and Stonington Harbor. Most of the island is in Westerly, R.I., but the northern-most 5 acres are in Stonington.

Sandy Point Island was donated to Avalonia in 1982 by the Gildersleeve family, to be protected and managed as a nature preserve. The island serves as a breeding ground for a variety of birds, including the least tern, roseate tern, piping plovers, American oystercatcher and herring gulls.

“A lot of the problems stemmed from camping and parties,” Milardo said. “Dogs were also a concern because of disruption to the nesting areas.”

There also was a problem with litter being left behind, she added.

“While we tried to find the balance between preserving the island as a wildlife refuge and allowing recreational enjoyment of it, people would often wander beyond the designated areas into the vulnerable nesting area,” Milardo said. “Despite the monitoring of the area, there was nothing we could do. Neither Avalonia, nor the (Stonington Community Center), had the ability to enforce the rules. So while we could watch over the area we couldn’t do anything to correct the problems.”

Milardo said the land trust spoke with FWS officials several years ago about possible solutions. While no immediate action taken, it remained a source of concern.

“In the last year and a half, we have renewed talks with them and came to this solution,” Milardo said. “This will allow Avalonia to retain ownership of the island, still allow for recreation, but also make sure that its purpose as a wildlife refuge remains the priority.”

Avalonia board member Binti Ackley said that volunteer members of the organization spent a few hours Saturdays and Sundays during the summer last year to sell permits to visitors on Sandy Point, but it wasn’t t something they could do on a regular basis.

She said that if all goes well with the negotiations with FWS, permits would likely be available beginning in April. Ackley added that members of the Gildersleeve family have told her they are happy with the potential new agreement.

It is somewhat difficult to access Sandy Point Island because there is no dock.