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Monday, November 22, 2021

Consensus building: people want fewer barriers to beach access

Public Expresses Support for Expanded Shoreline Access

By ROB SMITH/ecoRI News staff

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

During a recent meeting of the Special House Commission on Lateral Shoreline Access, Rhode Islanders again expressed overwhelming support for expanding shoreline access rights.

In late October, the public shared with the 12-member commission its concerns about vanishing shoreline access in the Ocean State. 

At a Nov. 18 meeting in the Chariho Regional Middle School auditorium, to solicit public input on what it is like to walk on a beach in Rhode Island, commission members heard tales of malicious property owners and restrictive parking signs. No one present at the meeting spoke in favor of property owners enforcing boundary lines.

The special House commission was created by the General Assembly this year to study the conflict between waterfront homeowners and beachgoers. Shoreline activists say they are executing their constitutional rights, but property owners claim they are trespassing.

“This is the Ocean State; we’re not a resort town to live in a few months out of the year and bail out in wintertime,” Rhode Island resident Stephen DiPippo said. “If we don’t have rights to the shore, we might as well live in Connecticut.”

As a result of a Rhode Island Supreme Court ruling from the 1980s, commonly known as the Ibbison decision, the boundary line has been fixed to the mean high-tide line. The line changes every 18.6 years based on tidal data. 

It’s also frequently underwater and impossible for most beachgoers to identify without specialized equipment. It is this muddled land in the sand the commission was created to fix.

But shoreline access advocates claim property owners have been overzealous in enforcing a boundary line that is uncertain.

“It is a dynamic, changing boundary; it is imprecise,” said Brian Wagner, a senior planner for South Kingstown.

In written testimony submitted to the commission, Rhode Island resident Joan Morin said she no longer felt safe letting her sons walk on the beach.

“If they were to stop, leave their belongings on the beach and jump into the surf, they run the risk of being accosted by beachfront owners and/or the goons they employ,” she wrote.

History and memory played a large part during the commission’s latest meeting, as many who spoke didn’t remember property owners being so quick to call the police. Others see it differently.

Narragansett Indian Tribe elder Bella Noka noted the town of Narragansett and its popular beach were named after her tribe, but she’s not allowed access without paying or without being bothered.

“I go there for a ceremony and I am constantly interrupted,” she said. “I am approached and asked what am I doing, why am I allowed to do this; you can’t do this in front of my lawn, can you please move, I will call the cops.

“I dare not approach anyone in their mosque, their temple, their church and ask them what they are doing while they are in prayer.”

Others emphasized how important tourism is to the local economy, and how integral beaches are to drawing those tourists.

“The pandemic has radically changed who I see in my daily business,” said Alexandra Lehmann, owner of Books on the Pond in Charlestown. “Smaller families can now work remotely and enjoy the Ocean State. Consider the economic impact on restricting access to the beach.”

The commission is scheduled to meet again Dec. 16 at the Statehouse in Providence. Recommendations are expected to be issued for the General Assembly early next year.