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Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Shoreline access might just pass this time

Senate panel passes shoreline access bill out of committee

By Nancy Lavin, Rhode Island Current

After decades of disagreement over where to draw the line in the sand on public shoreline access, the chasm between opposing sides has narrowed to 4 feet.


That’s the distance between the access line set under legislation approved by the Rhode Island House in April and a version voted out of the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday night. 

Can a compromise be reached? Legislative leaders say yes.

In an emailed response on Thursday, Senate President Dominick Ruggerio said, “I am confident that legislation will be approved this session that provides the public with meaningful access to the shoreline.”

But what defines meaningful access depends upon whom you ask.

The state constitution enshrines the right for people to “enjoy and freely exercise … the privileges of the shore” but doesn’t say how much of the shore is up for enjoying. 

A 1982 Rhode Island Supreme Court decision set the boundary at the mean high water line, a marker which can’t be determined without extensive scientific measurements and expertise, and, as climate change intensifies, has shifted underwater.

Lawmakers, property owners and beach enthusiasts have for decades debated where the line between public and private exists, without much consensus or clarity.

A legislative study commission which reviewed shoreline access in-depth for six months last year recommended 10 feet inland from the high tide line – also known as the seaweed or “wrack” line. That recommendation remains the top choice among some environmental and fishing groups.

Meanwhile, Sen. Mark McKenney, a Warwick Democrat, wanted to carve out an even more generous swath of shore for people to walk on and fish along. McKenney’s original bill would have set the boundary at the vegetation line. It has since been amended to mirror the commission recommendation 10 feet above the high tide line.

“The groundswell of support I was looking to see might exist for going to the vegetation line didn’t really show itself,” McKenney explained in an interview.

Hence, the change to boundary line recommended by the study commission. The amended bill was passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee in a 7-3 vote Thursday. Senators Frank Lombardi, a Cranston Democrat; Leonidas Raptakis, a Coventry Democrat; and David Tikoian, a Smithfield Democrat, all voted against sending the legislation to the floor.

McKenney was hopeful that lawmakers in the opposite chamber would be willing to meet at the Senate’s version. After all, it was a House study commission that recommended the 10-foot distance based on a “strong evidentiary basis,” McKenney said.

McKenney’s amended bill includes provisions around public education and signage to let people know about where the public right to the beach ends. It also clarifies that when there are multiple high tide lines, the distance is measured from the line closest to the water. 

“I would like to think [the House] would take a look at what we’ve done, and that’s a pretty reasonable journey the Senate has taken…and they would meet us here,” McKenney said. 

The House has already passed a shoreline access bill setting the boundary 6 feet above the high tide line. Rep. Terri Cortvriend, a Portsmouth Democrat who sponsored the legislation, said Thursday she was open to moving the line up 4 feet to match the Senate version.

But she wasn’t sure that would sway fellow representatives.

“Leadership on my side is at 6 [feet],” she said. “I am hoping we come to a compromise somewhere in-between.”

House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, a Warwick Democrat, shared similar sentiments in an emailed response Thursday.

“We are working hard to achieve a compromise with the Senate to enable both chambers to pass identical legislation in this session,” Shekarchi said. 



Rhode Island Current is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Rhode Island Current maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Janine L. Weisman for questions: Follow Rhode Island Current on Facebook and Twitter.