Public Health & Recreation

Warwick Working to Strengthen Rights of Way to Shoreline Access


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

WARWICK, R.I. — Six months after lawmakers passed a measure expanding coastal access for the public, what’s left to do regarding shoreline access?

Quite a lot, according to the advocates.

While the law passed in June codified the right for the public to walk up and down the beach in a specified coastal zone between the ocean and private property, that legal provision only applies once a person is on the beach. It said nothing about how a person gets on the beach in the first place.

The public gets to the shore by accessing a right of way (ROW), a path designated as such either by a local municipality or the Coastal Resources Management Council, and shoreline advocates are keen to maintain and expand these access points.

While in theory ROWs allow the public to get on the beach without obstruction, in practice it rarely works out that way.

Warwick residents recently voiced their support for expanding and maintaining access points along the city’s 40-plus miles of coastline. Despite its small shoreline, between town-designated ROWs and dedicated highways, Warwick has 118 different access points for members of the public to reach the shoreline, and advocates want to keep it that way. CRMC itself has awarded 40 ROWs within Warwick.

During a recent ROW workshop hosted by the city’s Harbor Management Commission, local resident Richard Langseth said the city needed to do more to protect the ROWs designated by the city from having boulders or other illegal obstructions installed by private residents to restrict access to the shoreline.

“People will throw garbage on rights of way so you can’t get through,” Langseth said.

Residents like Langseth expressed concern that obstructions and unmaintained ROWs discourage people from using access points to the city’s shoreline; they view it as the first step for waterfront homeowners to pressure the city to abandon the ROWs and curb public access to the shoreline.

The Nov. 27 workshop, hosted by Sean Henry, the city’s principal planner, was meant to solicit feedback on the city’s new draft policies for coastal access as part of its harbor management plan. It’s the first time in 22 years the city has updated the plan.

Resident Michelle Komar said the city needed to add a policy stating it will not abandon its existing ROWs to private property owners, something which had long been unofficial policy within city government, according to Komar.

“Abutting property owners can apply to the city council that a ROW be considered abandoned,” she said. “The city should have a policy not to grant these requests.”

(ROWs awarded a state designation by CRMC cannot be considered abandoned by municipalities.)

Other issues facing local ROWs, according to local residents, include the city neglecting to maintain several of its ROWs since the pandemic; restrictive or non-existent parking for locals at many of the designated access points along the shore; and confusion over who in the city to contact regarding coastal access issues.

Other issues facing local ROWs include a lack of maintenance by the city. Advocates say the city stopped maintaining ROWs during the pandemic, citing staffing shortages, and residents have no clear recourse over who to call.

“This document should inform the public on how to deal with these issues,” Komar said. “People don’t know who to call for them.”

“We need to know which department is in charge,” Langseth said.

Warwick isn’t the only municipality with ROW problems. In Westerly, the Weekapaug Fire District — which despite its name is more of a private homeowners’ association than a fire department — has been restricting access to the 1.8-mile Quonochontaug Barrier Beach during summer months, turning locals away with hired security guards and leading plenty of tension between the fire district and some locals.

The nearby access point, known as the Spring Avenue Extension ROW, is currently under consideration by the CRMC for a state designation. Attorneys for the Weekapaug Fire District are contesting its status as a ROW.

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