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Wednesday, April 12, 2023

Shoreline access bill passes the RI House

House approves bill to clarify public shoreline access

The House of Representatives today approved legislation sponsored by Rep. Terri Cortvriend to establish a more practical and recognizable boundary for the area of the shore to which the public is entitled access. The bill now goes to the Senate.

The legislation sets the line at six feet landward from the recognizable high tide line, also known as the “wrack line,” recognizable by a line of seaweed, scum and other deposits left where the tide reached its highest point.

The right of Rhode Islanders to access the shoreline was written into the state constitution when it was adopted in 1843, and further delineated after the 1986 constitutional convention. Yet exactly where the public shoreline ends and private property begins has been a debated issue that has intensified with development of the shoreline over the last century.

Representative Cortvriend led a House commission from 2021 to 2022 that studied the question of how the state should define the area of the shoreline that is public. 

Although that commission recommended defining the boundary of the public area at 10 feet landward of the recognizable high tide line, Representative Cortvriend’s bill (2023-H 5174) sets it at six feet landward, because she believes that distance is more likely to win support among legislative leaders and her colleagues, who must balance property owners’ and the public’s interests.

“Public shoreline rights have long been cherished by Rhode Islanders, which is why they were guaranteed in our state constitution in the first place. But it’s impossible to protect that right when no one can tell where the public shoreline ends. The lack of a clear definition has caused problems in our state for decades. Our commission put a great deal of care into exploring this issue, working with experts, advocates and property owners to develop a reasonable definition of the public shoreline’s edge that will protect Rhode Islander’s constitutional right without taking private property. I believe this legislation is a very fair way to finally settle this question, which is really should be clear in a place known as the Ocean State, where beaches and shores are so critical to our identity and economy,” said Representative Cortvriend (D-Dist. 72, Portsmouth, Middletown).

A 1982 state Supreme Court case, State vs. Ibbison, established the boundary of the public’s shore access at the mean high tide line, defined as the average of high tides over an 18.6-year cycle, which continually changes with the shifting sands of the coast. The Supreme Court’s decision has led to much conflict because it is impossible for anyone walking along the shore to know where that shifting line is. 

In recent years, coastal access advocates have pushed for a better solution, including by getting arrested in a contested waterfront area.

The legislation also exempts owners of shoreline property from liability for the public’s activities in that area, and recognizes that in some waterfront places, such as rocky cliffs and sea walls, there is no passable area for the public to access.

The legislation passed the House last year.