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Thursday, January 2, 2014

Taylor Swift – is her new seawall legal or illegal?

Causing a stir even though she’s not in town
By Will Collette with commentaries from Tracey O’Neill and Samuel Howard
Not meant to be aesthetic in nature, large stones provide more
protection against coastal storms. (photo by Tracey C. O'Neill)

Taylor Swift. Just mentioning her name, especially in a headline, will generate lots of Google search hits for Progressive Charlestown. 

Country music diva Swift is our neighbor, living just a few miles down the beach in her $17 million Watch Hill mansion, though she really lives in another dimension of time and space.

Even though Ms. Swift is not in residence, she’s causing another major stir by building a major piece of construction on her beachfront, a huge seawall to protect her property from coastal storms. Lots of property owners along our coast line are fortifying their properties against the inevitable next big storm. But Swift’s project is attracting lots of attention, mainly because she’s Taylor Swift and we’re kinda starved for celebrity gossip in our area.

There has been some outcry over this project and the official reaction to it. Some charge Swift is infringing on public access rights to the beach. Others say it's not so simple. It’s hard to predict the half-life of this controversy, but it’s getting a lot of attention.

To get the ball rolling, please read on for two different takes on the Taylor Swift Wall by two guest columnists I’ve frequently featured in Progressive Charlestown. The first is Sam Howard who appears frequently at Rhode Island’s Future. The second is Tracey O’Neill whose blog OnLinewithTraceyC offers great coverage on politics and the environment.

CRMC: Taylor Swift Is Building a Completely Legal Wall

About an hour after my post on Taylor Swift’s wall rehabilitation I saw this column by Tom Mooney in The Providence Journal where the Coastal Resources Management Commission’s Laura Dwyer gives a pretty definitive answer about any criticism of Swift for building a wall on her property.

Dwyer said the CRMC expected the permit applications from such an international celebrity would draw attention.

“Our executive director [Grover Fugate] had a feeling this was going to happen, so doing more than his usual due diligence, he went to the site a number of times, just so he had a good understanding of the present conditions, what they wanted to do, and in order to feel comfortable that this was all under ‘maintenance’ of the seawall.”

Swift’s hard-working publicist points us to another story by The Day‘s David Collins, the writer who kicked off the whole hullabaloo. Here’s the key bit: 

Turns out, though, Swift and her engineers suggest in their application to the CRMC, the old cement wall is well above the mean high water mark, the effective property line for oceanfront land.

In fact, the plans indicate Swift’s property extends in some places up to 40 feet beyond the concrete wall.

And if you were to extrapolate from that line, along the beach, it would mean much of the big wide sandy beachfront the public enjoys every summer in Watch Hill is above mean high water and owned by the adjacent homeowners.

This seems counterintuitive because it’s not what people usually think of as the high tide line, the part of the beach where a “wet line” is left as the tide goes in and out.

I learned some of this from a CRMC geologist Monday who explained that the legal definition of mean high water in Rhode Island comes from a very specific court case and involves complex calculations unrelated to the vagaries of ocean tides on a beach or the classic “wet line” left behind.

Unless I’ve got my facts wrong, the case in question was in the Rhode Island Supreme Court, State v. Ibbison (1982); where a property owner had fishermen arrested for trespassing. The fishermen had figured that the high water mark (usually marked by seaweed) was public property. The property owner asserted that the mean high tide mark was.

The property owner was ruled correct, but the arrest was ruled to be unfounded, because up until Ibbison, there was no standard definition for what the “shore” was. And thus for the last 30 years the mean high tide mark is our standard (which has left large portions of public property underwater). (Information on Ibbison from page 116 of The Rhode Island State Constitution by Patrick Conley and Robert Flanders, Jr.)

So what does all this mean for Swift? Well, it means she’s in the right and clear, that David Collins can’t necessarily eyeball “mean high tide,” that the CRMC does their due diligence, and that I’ve once again poked my finger in someone’s eye who’s much bigger then me without genuine cause (the sad thing is that I know about Ibbison since my 11 Awesome Things about RI post, Collins didn’t have that benefit).

However, it also points to the problem with using undefined and vague words when trying to protect rights in our Constitution. I mean theoretically, if you have the constitutional right to gather seaweed from the “shore” that same “shore” should extend to the highest extent of seaweed.

If you have to swim out to gather your seaweed, I’m not sure that should be counted as “shore.” Anyhow, defining “shore” as equivalent to “high water mark” not “mean high water mark” is a constitutional change (or a judicial one, but it’s hard to roll back 30 years of judicial interpretation), and that’s really up to the voters.

So yeah, if you were hoping to use this little episode to nurse your weirdly deep and inexhaustible hatred of Taylor Swift, then you’ll have to find some other reason.

- See more at:

Samuel G. Howard - A native-born Rhode Islander, educated in Providence Public Schools, went to college in North Carolina and a political junkie and pessimistic optimist.

Taylor Swift Seawall Project Compliant per CRMC

Construction workers move large stone rip rap revetment
seaward of concrete wall (photos Tracey C. O’Neill)

Westerly - The Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council, issuer of maintenance construction permits to engineers for country-pop artist Taylor Swift says work at the seven-time Grammy Award winner’s waterfront home in Watch Hill is in compliance with permits granted.

“The boulders on the seaward side of structure the are part of the revetment,” said Laura Dwyer, spokesperson for CRMC. “The structure actually used to extend much further out into the water.”

Controversy arose last week when casual observers on East Beach in Westerly came upon several pieces of heavy machinery and construction crews at work on the stone revetment and cliff below Swift’s seaside mansion.

The placement of large armor rip rap revetment (boulders and stones) in front of an existing concrete wall raised the question of whether the work being accomplished was legally permitted and stone removal in coastal waters allowable.

A column printed in the Day by David Collins  and distributed on social media channels, including Rhode Island Surfrider Foundation’s Facebook page, questioned the lack of town permitting for the project. It also questioned the newly placed layer of rip rap armoring along the seawall extending out into the waters of the Atlantic.

“Not only is the Swift contractor plucking and moving around big ocean boulders, but they have added a whole new line of rock sea wall on what had previously been a public beach, at a location that appears to be below mean high tide,” said Collins.

Just the facts

According to Dwyer, the shoreline in question is not a naturally rocky shoreline. The stones in the water and surrounding the area in question were stones from the former rip rap revetment, redistributed by coastal storms and dependent on natural circumstance, sometimes covered in sand.

“Our job is to ensure the least impact in the coastal area,” said Dwyer. “The stones in the water are smaller stones from the revetment and the cliff that don’t belong there. We approved the smaller stones being removed and reused. We also approved bringing in larger stones that were more effective during storms.”

To read the rest of Tracey’s article, click here.