As Beach Days Come, So Does the Annual Ocean State Battle: Access and Parking
May 16, 2022
WESTERLY, R.I. – With summer approaching, the state’s activists are gearing up for battle over that most Rhode Island of issues: beach parking.
“Parking is the backdoor way to privatize a public beach,” said Conrad Ferlah, a prominent local shoreline activist and administrator of the Facebook group Saving RI Coastal Access/Rights of Way. “If you remove all the parking within two miles [of a shoreline access point] is it still public access?”
To call the battles over public access to the shoreline as regular as the tides has become a local cliche. The Rhode Island Constitution enshrines residents’ rights to the shoreline, whether that be for walking or swimming or fishing or collecting seaweed. But waterfront property owners claim residents walking on the beach in front of their property are trespassing, or have horror stories of raucous parties or rude beachgoers.
But while the state constitution enshrines the right to enjoy the shore, it doesn’t have a lot to say specifically about access to that shore. In Rhode Island there are two ways to access the shore: lateral and perpendicular. Perpendicular means right-of-way points where the public is legally allowed to travel to the shore without trespassing on private property. Lateral access refers to the actual traveling up and down the shoreline.
The General Assembly recently concluded its study commission on shoreline access, releasing a report recommending the legislature pass into law language codifying lateral access to the shore, 10 feet landward from the seaweed line. The commission has resulted in legislation, H8055, introduced by Rep. Terri Cortvriend, D-Portsmouth, that would do just that.
The current legal precedent sets lateral access rights below the mean high-water line, a line that no beachgoer, let alone property owner, can identify without sophisticated scientific equipment and data, and which is underwater for portions of the day.
The legislation providing a path 10 feet landward of the seaweed line is meant to fix what Rep. Blake Filippi, R-New Shoreham, called an “illusory right.”
But the study commission said nothing of perpendicular access to the shore or rights of way, despite receiving much public testimony over the issue.
“If you want to take advantage of the shore, you have to legally get there,” said University of Rhode Island professor Dennis Nixon. “Whether through a public beach area, a public wilderness area or one of these street ends that’s been labeled a right of way.”
But for some, getting to that public access point is the whole ballgame. The state’s wealthier towns with plenty of waterfront and shoreline are notorious for restricting parking, and residents frequently complain about too many out-of-towners using the beach.
Barrington resident Ken Block has explained how his town uses parking restrictions to dissuade public use of the beaches. Barrington, said Block, blanketed all roads leading to six separate public rights-of-way to the shore with “no parking” signs. According to data provided to Block by the town, all but six parking tickets issued between 2019 and 2021 were issued on streets with a 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.
“No parking” and “no trespassing” signs have long been used to thwart shoreline access. The Providence Journal reported in the summer of 1949 how easy it was to park at rights-of-way at Warwick’s Conimicut Point early in the season – and how that changed in summer.
“Then the summer dwellings filled and hot weather thrust carloads of bathers out of the city for relief,” wrote reporter Stuart Hall. “On weekends the point swarmed with humanity seeking the first good swimming below the pollution line at the mouth of the Providence River.”
It wasn’t long at those same access points that “no parking” and “no trespassing” signs went up, and the crowds went away, according to the story. “It became obvious during the survey that the problem of access to the shore is tied tightly to the family car. Without adequate parking space for the jalopy or limousine, the constitutional ‘privileges of the shore’ appear limited to the few, rather than the people as a whole,” wrote Hall.
Towns often designate their own rights of way, but on the state level they is handled by the Coastal Resources Management Council. CRMC stresses that its state designation makes no determination over who owns the property, but merely says that the public is allowed to use it to access the shore. Parking, unless on state-owned property, is left to the municipality.
Shoreline activists say they’re not giving up. Ferlah said he wants to ensure children today enjoy Rhode Island beaches like he did growing up. “We live here because it’s home, and there’s some really beautiful aspects of it,” said Ferlah. “When you take that away… what do you got?”