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Wednesday, May 8, 2024

While lawmakers enshrined the public's lateral access to the shore last summer, there's still plenty of issues left over in access to coastal rights of way around the state.

Shoreline Access Advocates Seek to Expand Public Rights of Way

By Rob Smith / ecoRI News staff

Photo by Will Collette
Shoreline advocates gathered on Smith Hill, hoping to widen the legislative beachhead following the passage of last year’s landmark coastline access legislation.

Last year’s shoreline access bill, a historic win for advocates, codified the public’s right to the Rhode Island shoreline 10 feet landward of the lowest wrack, or seaweed, line. It was the culmination of years of advocacy from state residents opposed to the enclosure of the shoreline by private property owners.

But the law excluded any new rights for rights of way (ROWs), the legally designated footpaths for members of the public to travel on and legally access the shoreline in the first place. Under a handful of bills introduced by Sen. Victoria Gu, D-Charlestown/Westerly, public ROWs might see a boost.

The first bill (S2641) would give cities and towns the ability to abandon municipal roads, while also still retaining public easements. Municipalities in Rhode Island traditionally have to spend money to maintain a road for vehicle use under state law, otherwise the road can be considered abandoned by private property owners, who can take over the property.

“There are many roads all around the state that every time we have a storm sand washes over them, they flood, there are rocks that get pushed up … these are roads that are going to become impractical to maintain in time,” said Michael Woods, chair of the New England chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, in a committee bill hearing. “It will be expensive and towns will have the choice to abandon public access or incurring costs to protect public access unnecessarily.”

A second bill (S2634) would expand the use of adverse possession to include footpaths and not just roads used by vehicles. Currently, state law prohibits adverse possession claims for anything but vehicles. For shoreline advocates, it’s a change that sits nicely with the way agencies such as the Coastal Resources Management Agency designate new rights of way.

It’s a change opposed by the Rhode Island Mortgage Bankers Association (RIMBA), which told lawmakers in committee the change would increase the likelihood of easement claims and negatively impact property values.

“We are afraid landowners will have to confront individuals as they cross over the property, and try to eject them from the property,” said Lenette Forry-Mernard, a lobbyist for RIMBA. “We think the only option would be to file complaints with the police in order to have something on record that shows the landowner did not want the individual there.”

Shoreline advocates opposed similar legislation (S2773) introduced by Sen. Matthew LaMountain, D-Warwick, which would repeal the adverse possession requirement, but only for land within 100 yards of the Pawtuxet River in Warwick and Cranston.

Gu’s third bill (S2185) would require homebuyers of waterfront property to be notified and acknowledge the rights of the shoreline access bills passed last year, including any ROWs that may cut across or be adjacent to the property, CRMC permits, and any other conditions of public access.

New homeowners being unaware of CRMC assents or ROWs is an issue that has made headlines since last session. In December, a state judge punted a dispute between Barrington waterfront property owners and members of the public back to CRMC to sort out. 

The Sheffields, who bought their 3.92-acre home on Nyatt Road in 2021, claimed in their original court filings they had no knowledge of a nearly 4-decade-old CRMC assent on their seawall until after they had closed on their home.

The assent, which guaranteed public access to the shoreline along the seawall, argued the Sheffields, was missing from local property records, and thus was invalid and unenforceable by the state.

“A lot of people in Rhode Island are aware of the new shoreline access law,” Gu told lawmakers. “But a lot of people coming in from other states to buy property don’t necessarily know. This is an important consumer protection and education measure so people buying oceanfront real estate understand the public’s constitutional right to access the shoreline.”

All three bills were held for further study.