An online petition seeking answers from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) regarding disputes ranging over two years between cross-country runners and officials at Goddard Memorial Park has garnered over 7,000 signatures and over 700 comments, and alleges that the athletes are being unfairly barred from practicing at the park on the grounds of safety concerns for horses and their riders.
“For many years runners have co-existed peacefully with other park users, utilizing Goddard’s waterfront trail system early in the morning when usage is low,” the petition letter states. “However, since 2015 park staff have harassed runners, parents and coaches. This harassment, which has been documented, has included intimidation, willful dissemination of false information and refusal to treat running groups fairly.”
The petition cites a typewritten letter that was handed out to runners and coaches by park staff in 2016 as evidence of some of these allegations.
The letter, provided to the Beacon, states the following: “Due to the increasing conflict between runners and horses on the equestrian trails at Goddard Park, the Division of Parks and Recreation will institute new guidelines for the 2016 season.”
The letter states that, effective April 1, 2016, competitive cross-country meets will only be allowed on Monday and Wednesday evenings from 3 p.m. until dusk during September and October, that team practices and group training will not be allowed at any times (not even on Saturday mornings, before horse riding activities commence) and that large events must be reviewed and approved by Goddard Park’s regional manager.
The letter reasons that such restrictions were justifiable because, “The trails were deeded to the State with the stipulation that their main use would be for equestrian activities.”
In response, petitioners obtained a transcribed copy of the original deed for Goddard Memorial Park, which was sold to the state of Rhode Island by the family of Col. Robert Goddard in November of 1927 for $10 and other considerations.
The deed declares that the park should be maintained by the state and must be “forever for the public use and enjoyment, recreation and education of the public.” It does not list equestrian activities as the “main use” of the park, or specifically mention any special rights of access for equestrian uses at all.
Aaron Rome, a consultant and father of a cross-country runner from North Kingstown High School, started the petition on behalf of cross country athletes and parents who are frustrated at the restrictions and at their inability to get a straight answer from Goddard Park officials or from DEM.
“These kids should have an equal opportunity to use the trails same as anyone else,” Rome said. “We don't need a permit to go out on Route 1, which is much more dangerous, but now at Goddard Park we now are being told we need a permit.”
Rome said that, most recently in July, a cross-country coach was fined $2,103.25 by a park ranger for allowing his team of girls to practice in the park without a permit. When the coach fought the citation and took the matter to court, “The fine was later reduced to $203.25 with no explanation.”
After being fined, Rome said that the coach applied for a permit in September to allow for practicing in the park, but this request was ultimately denied, and was denied on the 30th and last day of the allowable time limit for processing a permit application. When the coach called to inquire why he was denied, Rome said that he never got a response.
Rome said he could empathize with concerns of equestrian riders, who may be intimidated by large crowds of people approaching while on the back of a horse, but that the time period for which many cross country teams seek to utilize the park – between 8-10 a.m. on Saturdays from June through October/November – is a time period before horse riding services are active.
“Runners respect horses and their riders and every coach I have observed has briefed his/her runners prior to every run about respect and safety protocol with regard to horses,” reads a petition update from Sept. 29. “Nobody from 'our' side is suggesting that horses should be banned from the carriage trails.”
However Rome and those who signed the petition feel as though barring a such a large group – which constitutes as many as 10 local cross country teams – from utilizing the park in order to satisfy safety concerns of what amounts to a very small percentage use of the park is not a just solution.
“The trails are not theirs; they belong to all Rhode Islanders and this tiny fraction of park users is being given grossly disproportionate access,” the petition reads. “This unjustified access is neither in the public interest, nor in alignment with the park’s deed...Equestrian riders account for less than 1/10th of one percent of park users. If equines are included in the computation, the percentage would increase to 1/5th of one percent.”
On Friday morning, Rome sent a copy of their grievance letter, the petition and its signatures and comments to DEM Director Janet Coit. Rome said that Coit responded to him later that same day, saying that she was “aware of the issue and would be discussing it shortly.”
Rome made it clear that parents and athletes were the catalysts for starting the petition, not cross-country coaches. Rome has enlisted the services of attorney James Callaghan, who spent eight years in the state Attorney General’s Office and is now employed as the attorney for the town of North Kingstown, in order to, “ensure that whatever remedy we arrive at with the DEM is fair, transparent and a long-term solution.”
“Our aim is to maintain civility and respect, and to solve a problem...that really should not be that difficult to fix,” Rome writes in one of the petition updates.
“As the steward of our state’s remarkable system of historic parks and natural areas, the Department of Environmental Management has the authority and obligation to manage the diverse, and often competing, uses of the system and ensure all users have a safe and enjoyable experience,” reads a statement submitted by DEM. “We know how important Rhode Island's park network is to the running community, and our goal is to continue to work together to ensure we effectively balance interests so all visitors benefit.”
Requests for comment from Goddard Memorial Park regional manager Roger Monfette and C&L Stables, which operates a horse riding service at Goddard, went unreturned by press time.
Below, see the document handed out to runners by Goddard Park staff and the transcribed copy of the original deed obtained by petitioners. The PDF may not load in all Internet browsers or on mobile devices.