Beset by Mopeds, Block Islanders Say They Would Rather Secede Than Go to Hell on Wheels

UPDATED 07/02/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 07/02/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT

Until recently Block Island, about 12 miles off the Rhode Island coast, dozed peacefully, a haven of sun and sand for summer tourists. The Chamber of Commerce boasted that the pork-chop-shaped, VA-by 7-mile isle was "unspoiled, unhurried, a soothing contrast to the pace and pressures of life on the mainland."

But that bucolic image was shattered in a raucous midnight rally on June 5. As television crews from Manhattan and Tokyo shot the scene, some 185 of the 650 year-round residents stood up at a town meeting to shout for nothing less than secession from Rhode Island. What had whipped the tranquil islanders into revolt was the plague of mopeds, those little scooters that are to Harley-Davidson what Woody Allen is to Marlon Brando. On summer weekends nearly 15,000 mainlanders crowd in, many renting some of the gas-powered two-wheelers. Worse yet, the state government has refused to let the islanders regulate mopeds.

"I can see no alternative other than secession," proclaimed Norris Pike, a leader of the island's militant faction. "Are we starting a revolution? No. It's just a continuation of one that was begun by our forefathers."

Pike's pique was greeted by a lusty ovation. And then the crowd voted to confirm Pike's motion for a declaration of independence. Mopeds, the residents explain, shatter the seaside solitude, tear up the sand dunes—and hurt people. Lisa Sprague, captain of the island's volunteer rescue squad, claims that her group can no longer handle the volume of moped-related accidents: 78 last year (up from 42 in '82), including a pregnant woman who lost her 7-month-old fetus.

Not surprisingly, the owners of the island's five moped rental agencies—some of whom take in up to $150,000 per summer—are dead set against the movement and dispute the accident statistics. Says Kathy Finnimore of Island Mopeds, "Every time somebody falls off a bike and scratches a leg, the islanders call out the rescue squad and it counts as an accident."

The moped controversy became a polarizing issue after the Rhode Island Supreme Court struck down an ordinance passed by the town council limiting the number of mopeds on the island. Subsequently, the state senate killed a bill requiring a motorcycle license to rent a moped on the island.

Fed up with the state government, Pike asked the Block Island town council to consider the radical option of seceding. Even before the motion carried, the governors of Massachusetts and Connecticut sent offers of annexation. "Please be assured that the citizens of Block Island would be welcome as residents of Connecticut," wrote William O'Neill, Connecticut's Governor. "I am a firm believer in the old proverb 'All rights to the people, and every moped in its place.' "

Meanwhile, on the island, the moped squabble has escalated into guerrilla warfare—or what passes for guerrilla warfare on "unspoiled, unhurried" Block Island. "People come here and spit on our place," laments Finnimore. "And I don't think I'll get many Christmas cards this year."

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