Public Health & Recreation

Barrington Shoreline Access Issue Back in Hands of CRMC


PROVIDENCE — A dispute over a popular Barrington shoreline access point has been punted out of court and back into the hands of the state’s coastal regulators.

Last month Superior Court Judge Jeffrey A. Lanphear ordered the Coastal Resources Management Council to respond to a petition filed by Lance and Holly Sheffield, a pair of Barrington waterfront property owners contesting a 1982 assent on the property’s seawall as unenforceable.

The Sheffields, who bought the 3.92-acre property along Nayatt Road in 2021, claimed in their original court filings they had no knowledge of the 1982 assent on their seawall until after they bought their home. The Sheffields argued since the assent was missing from local property records, CRMC’s stipulation for public access, as well as any compliance measures taken to guarantee coastal access, is invalid and unenforceable.

The Sheffields’ home, near Nayatt Point, abuts a well-known coastal right of way (ROW) at the end of Elm Lane, which runs along the western end of their property.

The Elm Lane ROW is included on a list of town ROWs on the town’s website.

Attorneys for CRMC have pushed back against the Sheffields’ claims, arguing the agency’s own permits do not need to be recorded in public property records to be considered valid and accusing the Sheffields of failing to perform due diligence when buying the Nayatt Road property.

In an email to the Sheffields’ lawyer, CRMC legal counsel Anthony DeSisto acknowledged the agency had missed the 60-day deadline to respond, indicating that the council, in December 2021, had spent much of the period considering the Revolution Wind cable application and the Perry Raso aquaculture application.

In his decision, Lanphear only ruled on one claim in the Sheffields’ complaint: the fact that CRMC hadn’t responded to the appeal within the 60-day time limit required under state law. The judge declined to rule on all other matters in the case.

“The matter belongs before CRMC,” wrote Lanphear in his decision, “which has yet to make any findings of fact or law regarding the Sheffields’ petition.”

The dispute over the Sheffields’ property is just the latest in a long line of clashes over where public access to the shore begins, and where private property ends. Shoreline access advocates notched a big win earlier this year when lawmakers passed a lateral access law, defining where the public can walk up and down the Rhode Island shoreline, even in front of waterfront homes.

For sandy or rocky beaches, the public can access the shore legally within 10 feet landward of the recognizable high tide line, defined in law as the lowest seaweed, or debris, line, and in cases without debris, the wet line. But the new shoreline access law doesn’t apply to seawalls or other legally constructed shoreline infrastructure.

Clashes over coastal access on the Sheffields’ property began not long after the couple purchased the home in 2021. According to their complaint, the couple noticed members of the public using their seawall for coastal activities, including walking and fishing, and in a stunning demonstration of the adage “good fences make good neighbors,” the Sheffields erected a wire fence and posted “no trespassing” signs later that summer.

In September 2021, CRMC issued the first of two cease-and-desist orders against the Sheffields, ordering them to remove the fences and signs because they blocked public access and changed the seawall without agency approval.

The agency issued a second cease-and-desist order in May 2022 after receiving a citizen complaint, who informed CRMC the Sheffields had hired a security guard to ward people off the seawall, and installed a siren to “sound an alarm whenever people attempted to walk on the wall.”

Last December, the Sheffields filed an appeal with the agency, requesting it vacate the cease-and-desist orders because the assent was invalid. CRMC failed to respond, and the Sheffields filed their lawsuit against the agency in March.

CRMC is scheduled to consider and vote on the Sheffields’ appeal at its semi-monthly meeting Tuesday.

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