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Friday, August 27, 2021

House Commission on shoreline access holds first meeting

Shoreline access pits wealthy beachfront landowners against beach-goers and people who fish or gather seaweed

By Steve Ahlquist in UpRiseRI

The Special Legislative Commission to Study and Provide Recommendations on the Issues Relating to Lateral Access Along the Rhode Island Shoreline (Shoreline Access Commission) held an organizational meeting at the Rhode Island State House on Thursday. 

During the meeting Representative Terri Cortvriend (Democrat, District 72, Portsmouth, Middletown), who sponsored the legislation (H5469A) to create the Commission, was elected chair, and House Minority Leader Blake Filippi (Republican, District 36, New Shoreham, Charlestown, South Kingstown, Westerly) was elected vice-chair.

There were a few people attending the hearing, including shoreline rights activist Scott Keeley, who was arrested by the South Kingstown Police in 2019 for collecting seaweed on a so-called private beach. Those charges were later dismissed. [See: Protesters fight for our constitutional right to access ‘privileges of the shore’]

Though the intent of the commission is to study and provide recommendations “on the issues relating to lateral access along the Rhode Island shoreline” Chair Cortvriend noted that as a natural part of the discussion “rights of way” that is, paths to access beaches, will also be discussed. 

This is a hotly contested issue in many communities, where beachfront landowners post deceiving signs restricting access or erect barriers to rights of way in an attempt to maintain private access to beaches.

One thing to note about recent commissions is the addition of former legislators who have been replaced, by the voters, by progressive candidates. 

For instance, former State Senator Mark McKenney, who lost to Jeanine Calkin in District 30 in Warwick is on this committee. Former State Senator Harold Metts, who lost to Tiara Mack in District 6 in Providence, sits on the Redistricting Committee.

Many of the people seeing on the Shoreline Access commission are in, or adjacent to, House Speaker Joseph Shekarchi‘s District 23 in Warwick.

Stacking the deck on these kinds of commissions to achieve a desired political result is not new. Last years Senate Commission to study the Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights (LEOBoR) was carefully curated to achieve the result of advocating for minor changes to the statute instead of full repeal, and other commissions, as well as nearly every legislative committee, are staffed to protect the interests and political objectives of leadership.

Chair Cortvriend announced that there would be special meetings of the Shoreline Access Commission to accept public comment, which is a big deal. Public comment at legislative commissions is rare: The aforementioned LEOBoR committee took none, for instance.

Another issue that Chair Cortvriend shared an interest in exploring is shoreline access near the Port of Providence. Whereas most of the issues under consideration by the commission are in largely white, largely upper middle and upper class communities, in Providence shoreline access affects mostly poor people of color, with the added issue of environmental racism.

In addition to Chair Cortvriend and Vice-Chair Filippi, the commission includes:

  • Michael Rubin, who will serve as a resident of a coastal community; Attorney Rubin is also a former assistant Attorney General who served as Chief of Attorney General Peter Kilmartin’s Environmental Unit.
  • Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) Executive Director Jeffrey Willis;
  • David Splaine, representing the Rhode Island Realtors Association
  • Julia Wyman, representing the Marine Affairs Institute and Rhode Island Sea Grant legal program at Roger Williams University;
  • Dennis Nixon of the Marine Affairs Department at University of Rhode Island;
  • Save The Bay‘s Director of Advocacy and Policy Topher Hamblett
  • Land use attorney Mark P. McKenney, who, as mentioned above, is a former State Senator recently unseated by Jeanine Calkin,
  • Mark Boyer of the Rhode Island Society of Professional Land Surveyors;
  • retired Rhode Island Supreme Court Justice Francis X. Flaherty;
  • Alison Hoffman, current Special Assistant Attorney General, Environmental Unit under AG Peter Neronha.