Boston — It is the latest controversy in a continuing dispute over the proliferation of mopeds (motorized bicycles) on scenic Block Island, R.I. In a move that took many Block Island residents and officials by surprise, a Rhode Island Superior Court judge Monday ordered the state Department of Transportation (DOT) to halt enforcement of its new moped-safety regulations.
The Rhode Island legislature passed a special bill last June permitting Block Islanders in 1985 to write their own ordinance regulating mopeds. But island residents and officials were counting on the state's recently adopted safety regulations to help stem potential moped-related problems for the rest of this summer.
Now, with the court ruling, the issue will not come up in court again until Sept. 14 - well after the busy Labor Day weekend.
''We are riding through this summer and working with the moped renters the best we can just in the interest of the public safety,'' says Police Chief Paul Riker of the town of New Shoreham (known popularly as the village of Block Island).
First Warden John F. Gray adds, ''It is something we have to live with until the 14th of September, then we will go on from there.''
There are seven companies offering some 400 rental mopeds on the 11 -square-mile island located off the southwest coast of Rhode Island. On a hot, summer weekend, the island may see as many as 10,000 daily visitors.
Most of the island's 700 year-round residents have long complained that the mopeds are a noisy menace and a safety hazard. Members of the New Shoreham volunteer rescue squad have said that they were being overtaxed by emergency calls to assist moped riders involved in accidents.
Last year, as a result of what they saw as a growing problem, Block Islanders went to the state for relief. When the state declined to take a position on the issue, the islanders threatened to secede from Rhode Island. The secession campaign was dropped after the legislature, in a special session, passed a bill authorizing Block Island to adopt its own moped ordinance.
At the same time, Gov. J. Joseph Garrahy (D) requested the state DOT to develop statewide safety regulations for mopeds. Those regulations - the subject of the Superior Court action - went into effect last weekend.
The moped rental companies have resisted efforts to regulate their businesses. They say that moped rental is a legitimate enterprise and that mopeds are an acceptable form of recreation and transportation for tourists.
In Superior Court Monday, attorneys representing some of the moped rental companies argued that the state's new safety regulations posed a hardship for the companies.
The regulations require that people renting mopeds must be shown a safety film or given a short lecture on road safety, as well as pass a basic road test. They also require that moped drivers wear shoes and a shirt and that each driver and rider be issued a helmet and goggles.
The moped rental companies argued in court that they were not given enough time to prepare for such requirements. At least one company said it did not have access to a large enough space to conduct the basic road test.
The state DOT doesn't agree. ''We feel that our rules as they stand right now are good rules and are under the statute,'' says Veronica Ridolfi, a DOT staff attorney.
The DOT has scheduled a public hearing on the moped regulations for Sept. 4, but it's not clear whether the parties in the Superior Court suit will participate in that meeting.
In the meantime, Block Islanders have formed a committee to study the moped issue and make recommendations by December on their own moped ordinance. According to Chief Riker, who is on the committee, the group will be striving to find the ''middle ground'' between those residents who seek a total ban on mopeds and the moped rental companies who want the motorized bikes to remain unregulated. The ordinance is expected to include a limit on the number of rental mopeds on the island.
The concern of Block Island officials is that if the ordinance is too strict it will lead to yet another lawsuit. ''It has to be done in a reasonable manner, otherwise it will be open to challenge,'' Mr. Gray says.
He adds, ''Whatever happens on Block Island is going to set a precedent for the rest of the state and the rest of the resort areas in Rhode Island, and perhaps set a precedent on how these things (mopeds) should be regulated fairly.''