Government

Public Concerned About R.I.’s Vanishing Shoreline Access

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Homeowners, like this one in South Kingstown, R.I., have been known to make it difficult for the public to gain shoreline access in front of their properties, despite the constitutional right to do so. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

The 12-member commission was created by legislation passed in the spring and introduced by now-chair Rep. Terri Cortviend, D-Portsmouth. Shoreline access is enshrined in the Rhode Island constitution, and limited by legal precedent to the mean high tide line, or mean high water (MHW). Advocates say limiting access to the MHW denies people their rights; landowners claim anything else encroaches on their property rights.

Barrington resident and shoreline advocate Ken Block described how his town government severely restricts access to the shore. The wealthy East Bay town, said Block, has blanketed all roads leading to six separate public rights of way to the shore with “no parking” signs. According to data provided by the town, all but six parking tickets issued between 2019 and June 2021 were issued on streets with a public right of way. The remaining 352 tickets were written in response to a resident calling to complain.

“The town has created an on-demand security service that only issues tickets when someone calls for enforcement,” Block said. He noted there were no parking tickets issued during the week of school graduation or the week of July 4.

Town officials cite safety concerns on narrow streets for the no-parking signs, and advise beachgoers to park at the town beach. Critics of the town’s policy say the streets are plenty wide enough to park safety and note a lack of handicap parking spots at most rights of way.

Residents calling law enforcement is just as common for beachgoers already on the shoreline. Scott Keeley of Charlestown told commission members during the Oct. 28 meeting about the time he was arrested for criminal trespassing on a beach in South Kingstown. On an early June day in 2019, Keeley was walking in shallow water collecting seaweed on Charlestown Beach, before crossing the town line into South Kingstown. Security hired by local beachfront property owners informed him he was trespassing and asked him to leave. Keeley maintained his constitutional right to the shore, and the security guard called town police.

Keeley was arrested and charged, telling the officers “constitutions can’t protect themselves.” The charges were dropped the next day and his record was expunged the following week. Keeley sued the town and the South Kingstown Police Department, eventually winning a $25,000 settlement. He testified that common complaints from owners — such as opening up access will allow people to host parties, keggers, or other related immoral or unlawful activities — are “a diversion” from actual issues.

South Kingstown resident Conrad Ferlah said it was “not uncommon” for nearby property owners to harass his family when they went to the beach, even when accessing Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management sites and public rights of way. He characterized state beaches as full, and other beaches with restricted access as empty.

Mike Woods, chair of the Rhode Island chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, spoke in support of widening shoreline access. He stressed the need to fairly balance the rights of private property owners and the public’s right to the shore, but noted the current setup unfairly favored landowners. He said the near inability for the public to walk on dry sand under the MHW standard meant the public’s right “qualifies as practically nonexistent.”

Tom Greene told committee members that all possible identities except the seaweed line were hard for casual beachgoers to determine. The seaweed line, while easier, does not account for seaweed being pushed further inland from storms.

Greene called the present water line identifiable and suggested enacting into law instead a right of passage 4 feet from the current water line. He said 4 feet is similar to the width of a sidewalk, and it would minimize trespassing and property seizure.

The Shoreline Access Commission is scheduled to hold another public comment session Nov. 18 at 3 p.m. at Chariho Middle School in Wood River Junction.

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  1. The “enshrined” constitutional right to shoreline access has obvious limitations and an individual’s property rights is one of them. Try strolling along the shore at Electric Boat or the Naval War College and see how far your constitutional right gets you. When someone has the means to legally purchase a waterfront property they own the land as described in their deed and they pay hefty property taxes. The public does not have any right to trespass on that private property unless their is a legal easement to do so. There has been an abuse of eminent domain over the years with the government seizing property not for solely a public project such as a highway but stretching the use to private development such as Pfizer in New London.
    The entitlement mentality of the public in this country borders on anarchy. When I see the disgusting abuse of legitimate public lands such as state and town parks or privately owned parcels (The Nature. Conservancy and Land Trusts) which allow limited public access, I realize why private coastal property owners are so vigilant in protecting their private property rights. I’ve watched and then confronted beach goers who bury their empty beer cans in the sand instead of taking them with them or smokers who use the beach sand as their personal ashtray.
    Private property owners must defend and preserve their property from adverse possession and prescriptive easements so when you are trespassing and the property owner seems rude to you, consider the fact that you are the violator intruding upon the owner’s peaceful enjoyment of their land.
    Too bad if the public beaches are crowded, improve your lot in life and make the money to afford your own private waterfront location. Don’t abscond with other’s hard earned success.

  2. Did anyone else notice the beach profile. The jetty is not helping the situation and is probably increasing erosion. We need to start retreating from the shore due to sea level rise, with greater urgency, so in many ways this is just a prelude of things to come.

  3. Kevin – stop acting like a child who says, “mine all mine” when another child wants to play. If I was to counter your response with the logic you used I would say, “ If you don’t like that RI laws that stipulate Coastal ocean access for all then you can always take your entitled attitude and move”. But I’m sure you can see that kind of response would be immature and not exactly helpful.

  4. as someone who could not attend this session but cares about access to the shore, I thank those who did attend and spoke up for the public. Our capitalist system is evolving to one of more and more savage inequality and those with great wealth that can own shoreline property are getting more aggressive in overturning the constitutional rights of everybody else, and they can buy the influence to keep most the shore just for themselves. There is another way – I once lived in Oregon and there the entire coast was in public ownership. And contrary to the propaganda of the barons and their spokesmen that try to justify access only for the richest few, the people there valued their coastline and kept it in good condition.

  5. Shan,
    If you re-read my original comment, I never questioned what our state constitution has to say about coastal access, but that access does not extend onto private property. If the tide on a stormy day brings the water up to the front door of coastal property owners home, your logic would imply the public can walk through their living room! I pointed out two examples of where there are obvious exceptions to the “enshrined” right of coastal access. Regarding the other private properties abutting our coastal waters, my comment was directed to the very attitude you seem to support that what is mine is not mine if you or someone else wants to help themselves to it. This is America and what is mine was earned and is indeed mine and you are not entitled to what you did not earn and is not yours. If I want to invite you to my private property, I may do so, but fortunately our legal system does not require that I do so.
    Even if a majority of the population believes something should be does not make it right or legal, thus all of those testifying before this state commission and arguing that they deserve or are entitled to trespass on others’ lawful private property are mistaken.

    Barry,
    It seems to me that capitalism has been quite savage for some time, consider the mill owners of the 1800’s who owned the housing and the stores where their employees lived and shopped. I do agree with your assessment that wealth inequality has been exacerbated and I would argue that Ronald Reagan’s Trickle Down Economics was when this gap began to accelerate at a more rapid pace. Republican’s tax policies have destroyed the middle class in America. Corporations enjoy all the benefits that this country has to offer from our strong military which provides all of us including the corporations peace and security yet these corporations don’t pay their fair share in comparison to the working class. The Republicans love to criticize the fact that the corporate tax in America is higher than x number of other countries but these other countries don’t provide the benefits of security and infrastructure that America does. They also are happy to send our military made up of a large % of minorities off to defend our country but when they return home, these same Republicans are trying to deny those very minorities the right to vote!

  6. Kevin,

    RI law, since the 1663 Charter, has considered the shoreline – that area where the water meets land – public domain, where the public has a right to walk, pass, fish and collect seaweed. The Constitution has never limited that right to low tide, or only certain times of day. There is a public easement, if you will, that exists – and, frankly, has always existed – whether coastal property owners realize or accept it, or not. If people are misbehaving along the shoreline (leaving trash, starting fires, being rowdy) I sympathize, but you can call the police for that behavior, but not for their mere presence. No more than I can block off the sidewalk in front of my house because a few people litter or let their dogs pee on my grass.

  7. JT,
    Thank you for the detailed comment and I am aware of our constitutional right designed originally as you state mostly for the purpose to allow farmers access to gather seaweed.
    My comments have not been made to challenge that right. My understanding is that this commission is involved at reinterpreting where how that area of access is defined. While your analogy of blocking a public sidewalk is a good one, sidewalks do not ebb and flow like the tides. That is why the use of the mean high water line is a fair and reasonable yardstick to delineate where that constitutionally granted public access ends. I am arguing against changing what is an adequate delineation of public access and against expansion of the public’s right to gain perpendicular access to the shore across private property beyond what is already provided for by legally defined easements.
    Those are my concerns and the purpose of my public comment, to balance the public access right with personal private property rights. There can be excess on both sides, private property owners either unwittingly or knowingly restrict and block public easements near or bordering their property and that is wrong and illegal. The public also can view a wide stretch of beach they discover to be their own new Scarborough Beach but they are mistaken and also acting illegally when they trespass on that enviable stretch of beach.
    It all comes down to rule of law and respect. The law is established and the need is not there for revisions to accommodate those who think they have rights they don’t have on either side.

  8. Kevin,
    First, I respectfully disagree that the intent of the Constitutional right was mostly for farmers to gather seaweed, hence why "fishing", "leaving the shore to swim" and "passage along the shore" were explicitly listed (along with the preface "…but not limited to.) It’s also worth noting section 16 of the Constitution which further clarifies the intent of section 17 by clarifying that the public’s use of the shoreline should not be considered a "taking." But…about the mean high tide line…and why it’s problematic…
    Have you watched the shoreline access commission hearings, and did you see the presentation from the folks at URI about the mean high tide line, and why it’s a really bad tool for determining shoreline access rights? First, the line is an elevation of still water, and NOT a visible line on the sand. It’s literally impossible for any member of the public to know where that line is. Furthermore, it doesn’t take wind or waves into account (nor sea level rise) which means that the MHT line is submerged for most of the day, which would leave the public with very narrow, hard-to-discern windows each day where they can actually exercise their rights.
    Lastly, I’d argue that this commission is not necessarily attempting to change the law, but rather to clarify the law as it’s always been, for hundreds of years – that there exists a public easement along the shoreline, and that the public’s right to access and traverse that easement shouldn’t be limited by a standard that’s both impossible to discern and legally enforce. (Note: there’s never been a successfully prosecuted case of trespass along the shoreline because you have to prove that the member of the public knowingly crossed a line that is literally impossible to discern without expensive surveying equipment and know how.) I think clarity would benefit both "sides" of the issue.

  9. JT,
    The USF&W Service delineates their coastal property line using the mean high water mark (using I believe an 18 year average is the formula) to enforce protections for certain endangered species of birds. Sometimes their boundary line is indeed under water and therefore there is no dry sand to legally access without violating their property and being subject to fines for disturbing the endangered species.
    While this method may be cumbersome, there is not more clarity with a delineation line that moves with each tide. I have seen coastal homes at certain storm or king tides that are surrounded by water. Would using a non-fixed tide line allow the public to walk around these homes while the high tide is lapping at their foundation?
    Also, I believe the reference made in the 1663 Charter or the subsequent Constitution includes rivers in addition to salt water coastlines, thus this debate extends inland as well. Not sure if the mention was to only tidal influenced rivers or all state waters. Perhaps you know.
    Thank you

  10. Kevin,

    I believe that protection of endangered species, as well as the national security concerns at the War College and Electric Boat (which you references earlier) are unique concerns not present on most (or any?) coastal properties in the state. And, I disagree that using the mean high tide line necessarily provides clarity (or better clarity) to either the public or property owners, at least not in practical terms. For a property owner to get a trespass conviction using that standard, they have to prove that the individual KNOWINGLY trespassed, and knew where the MHT line was. While the line (again, a vertical measure of elevation) is certain and measurable, where it intersects horizontally with the land varies day to day (as the beach/sand is in constant motion.) In theory, every coastal property owners could have their land professionally surveyed, and put markers in the ground, but they’d be putting them in moveable sand that is often (mostly) submerged, and they’d likely get swept away quickly. (It’s also unlikely CRMC would approve the placement of such markers as they’d be a hazard.) By using the "high water mark" or "rack line," it gives the public a visible marker, as well as the property owners, and makes it much more likely that local authorities would actually respond to a trespass call. Yes, the exact placement of the "rack line" might change a bit from day to day (sometimes to the benefit of the property owner, at times of low tide) but I’m not sure who that hurts if it’s providing visible clarity. Lastly, to your point about a coastal property that’s surrounded by water at a king high tide; frankly, I’d argue that if that person’s property is THAT close to the shoreline that they built too close to the shoreline then. (Again, the public’s right to passage along the shore existed before most homes were built.) If the home is that close to be nearly submerged at times, you likely couldn’t get approval from CRMC to build that close. And, climate change and coming sea level rise is going to doom that home anyways.

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