Government

Shoreline Access Study Commission Agrees on Public’s Right to Pass

Next step: Panel will send a final report to the General Assembly with its recommendations

Concerns about vanishing access to the coast have shoreline access advocates seeking expanded public rights. (Joanna Detz/ecoRI News)

PROVIDENCE — The state’s study commission on shoreline access issues has reached a consensus: Rhode Island beachgoers should be able to legally travel along state shores 10 feet landward starting from the seaweed line.

House commission chair Rep. Terri-Cortvriend, D-Portsmouth, and vice chair Rep. Blake Filippi, R-New Shoreham, are expected to introduce legislation reflecting its recommendations.

The commission’s 12 members found themselves in broad agreement during a recent meeting on expanding the public’s right to pass along the shore up to the seaweed line. Individual members disagreed on the additional of space needed beyond that for beachgoers to access this right.

Rhode Island Realtors Association’s David Splaine argued that the seaweed line was sufficient, based on his observations at a beach near his home in Warwick’s City Park.

“If we choose the highest high-tide wrap line … potentially we have dry sand for people to walk on a high percentage of every tidal cycle,” he said.

Other commission members noted most of the trespassing complaints come from private property owners along the state’s southern shore, where high wind and wave energy makes finding dry sand to walk on much more difficult.

“There’s no question that Warwick park is not in that high-energy zone that we see in the south coast beaches,” University of Rhode Island professor Dennis Nixon said.

Private property owners and shoreline access advocates have been arguing for decades, as the commission learned over its six months of meetings. The Rhode Island Constitution enshrines rights to enjoy the privileges of the shore, but leaves unanswered the question of where on the shore do those rights begin and private property owners’ end?

A state Supreme Court decision in 1982 clarified the boundary line at the mean high-water line, but that has its own problems. The actual mean high-water line is nearly impossible for any casual beachgoer to see, unless they happen to be packing sophisticated scientific equipment. Shoreline advocates have long called for changing the boundary line to the more visible seaweed line, where high tide is marked on the sand by the debris it leaves behind.

“We’re fixing a mistake that the General Assembly has the power to fix, when the Rhode Island Supreme Court adopted a scientific test that works well at the inner harbor area with no wave or sea action.” Dennis Nixon

Commission members in favor of a wider buffer zone argued the need to walk on dry sand, not just seaweed, to give multiple people enough space to pass each other without trespassing.

“I do believe we need to go above what people see with their eyes so people always have dry sand to walk on,” Cortvriend said.

“It’s never one person accessing the shore,” Coastal Resources Management Council executive director Jeff Willis said. “It’s always a couple people or more walking side by side on the beach. I think 10 feet is a reasonable number as well.”

Commission members reached consensus on 10 feet from the seaweed line, but declined to define what activities could be done along the shoreline.

“I think our charge is limited to the area in which the substantive rights are exercised, not what those rights are,” Filippi said.

The commission is scheduled to meet one last time, March 24, when it will vote on a final report to be issued to the General Assembly.

“There’s a lot of hard work over the next four or five months to get this over the finish line in the General Assembly,” Filippi said. “I would encourage the public to remain diligently involved.”

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  1. Thank you for the excellent report. This legislation will make much sense, especially in an age of rising sea-levels.

  2. Thank you for such a reasonable approach to shoreline access. As a beach walker and shoreline explorer this makes a lot of sense and seems easy to follow. The 10’ additional zone will help to give folks sure footing.

  3. Thank you members of the CRMC for you hard work. Most of you are definitely good people working for the best interest of most of the citizens if the state. Sadly one hold out wanting us to walk in sea weed. Glad to see so far the majority of you are doing the right thing.
    Tom Micele

  4. Right to pass is not enough and would erode the constitutional right of Rhode Islanders to access the shore. Rhode Island Constitution ; Article 1, Section 17:

    The people shall continue to enjoy and freely exercise all the rights of fishery, and the privileges of the shore, to which they have been heretofore entitled under the charter and usages of this state, including but not limited to fishing from the shore, the gathering of seaweed, leaving the shore to swim in the sea and passage along the shore; and they shall be secure in their rights to the use and enjoyment of the natural resources of the state with due regard for the preservation of their values;

  5. Oh yes, “thank you commission”for seizing private property from those elites who must have obtained their wealth illegitimately and do not deserve the same property rights as those of us who believe in an egalitarian world similar to that utopia promised by Karl Marx. The proletariat shall enjoy those ill-gotten rewards of the bourgeoisie especially when storms push that seaweed line well inland lapping against their palatial shoreline estates for which they shall continue to contribute substantially in real estate taxes to support all of the other social welfare benefits we demand like free college tuition and bailouts when we fail to save for retirement or our own long-term care insurance.

  6. This is not “taking” of property from elites. It is restoring access to the public who once enjoyed it but had that access slowly eroded. The state constitution guarantees access to all. It does not say “except in those instances where a property owner is annoyed by public access”. Ten feet beyond the seaweed line simply means we don’t have to wade through the surf and seaweed while exercising our rights to the beach and shore. As for the real estate industry, I’m sure they are very much against anything that may interfere with sales and profits. As for well-heeled property owners and the taxes they pay, we get far more property taxes from the rank-and-file then we do from millionaires. Maybe what’s really needed is state legislation that clearly says that every shoreline property deed shall include language defining where public access ends?

  7. I grew up in South Kingstown and live in Westerly. My extended family has resided locally for over 100 years, and I spent summers going to nearby beaches. Over the years, the area has grown and changed considerably, with an influx of wealthy, out-of-state residents purchasing second homes. While there have always been out-of-state residents with second homes in these areas – there is nothing wrong with purchasing a second home out-of-state – the more recent influx has led to considerable destruction/reconstruction of smaller beach homes into shoreline “mansions” and an accompanying shift of attitudes about who can access the beaches. Some waterfront property owners believe they “own” the beach and have taken drastic measures to prevent other local residents from accessing beaches they have used for generations – including the use of intimidation tactics like verbal harassment, placement of sand barriers, and other threatening behavior. My family and I have experienced this first-hand, and it has impacted our ability to enjoy the beaches that we have used and loved since 1910.
    No homeowner should be allowed to prevent other residents from accessing our shoreline – and, if they attempt to restrict access, they should be held accountable for their actions. The sense of “entitlement” exhibited by certain homeowners needs to stop – no one “owns” the beach. All Rhode Island residents should have equal access to our shoreline without feeling intimidated – I am fully in favor of a bill that support this.

  8. Defining the seaward boundary of private property has always been a problem. The definition that has come down to us from English common law strikes me as a bit arbitrary (“lands commonly washed by the tides” being taken to mean the average of all high tides for 18.6 years); places that were settled by the French or Spanish, such as Texas and Louisiana, have different definitions. Rising sea level makes it even more challenging.
    In any event, this will be challenged as a taking, and the challenge may succeed. Meanwhile, we should all be respectful of our neighbors, and not abuse our right to access by trashing the beaches we love. The public, after all, includes a lot of slobs. Just inspect the high-water line and see what it contains besides shells and seaweed.

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