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Saturday, March 12, 2022

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

By Rob Smith / ecoRI News staff

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.

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.