Shoreline Study Commission Mulls Change to Lateral Beach Access
January 29, 2022
PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island beachgoers could find themselves with extra room to enjoy the Ocean State’s shoreline next summer.
The House special commission studying lateral shoreline access is winding down its work, and most of its members agree the boundary between public shore and private property needs to change.
“The current mean high watermark isn’t practical for the public and property owners,” said Save The Bay’s Topher Hamblett. “The swash line seems to be the practical way of dealing with it.”
Commission members seem to be homing in on the swash line, also known as the wrack line or seaweed line, created when the high tide washes seaweed onto the beach. A longtime favorite boundary of the state’s shoreline access, it carries the benefit of almost always being easily identifiable.
The current mean high watermark isn’t practical for the public and property owners. Topher Hamblett, Save The Bay
The special legislative commission was created last year to solve an annual conflict as steady as the tides: how to balance private property rights with the public’s right to access the shore. The Rhode Island Constitution guarantees the rights of its citizens “to enjoy and freely exercise all rights of fishery, and privileges of the shore.”
Those rights have been in conflict with beachfront property owners, who have long alleged that beachgoers are trespassing when they go on private beaches. A 1984 state Supreme Court case fixed the private-public property line at the mean high-tide line, a boundary that is invisible to the casual beachgoer and often literally underwater. That boundary is determined by 18.6 years of average tidal data, which can only be determined with special equipment.
Most of the commission members at the Jan. 27 meeting agreed continuing to use the mean high-tide line was no longer a usable option.
“Trying to use that line is a concern, and probably is at this point no longer the best way in which to ensure the people know exactly what their rights are,” said commission member and former state legislator Mark McKenney.
Last year commission chair Rep. Terri Cortvriend, D-Middletown, introduced a bill that would have allowed the public to walk on the beach without trespassing at the swash line. But property owners argued that would have constituted an illegal taking, or seizure, by the government.
“Many property owners say it’s a taking, but it goes both ways … for many beaches most of the year, that [shoreline] access doesn’t exist, it’s an illusory right. If we adopt the position of many property owners, the public rights are taken by the private property owner,” said commission vice chair Rep. Blake Fillipi, R-New Shoreham.
Others on the commission expressed doubt any threatened lawsuit would be successful or harm the state.
“The [legal] threats have been made, and to the best of my knowledge a state has never had to pay a penny, let alone a $100 million [in damages],” commission member Dennis Nixon said.
By law the commission must complete its work by March 30 and submit a report with recommendations to the General Assembly. Cortvriend noted she expected to accomplish more than just writing a single report, and asked her colleagues to start submitting opinions in writing.
“Vice chair Filippi and I want consensus around legislation,” Cortvriend said.
The commission’s next meeting is scheduled for Feb. 10.