R.I. House passes bill to increase public access to shoreline

THE R.I. HOUSE OF REPRESENATIVES passed a bill on Thursday, June 2, 2022, to provide increased, more easily-defined access to the shores of Rhode Island. But Senate leadership doesn’t seem interested in passing its own version of the legislation before it could be signed into law by the governor. / PBN FILE PHOTO/DAVID LEVESQUE
THE R.I. HOUSE OF REPRESENATIVES passed a bill on Thursday, June 2, 2022, to provide increased, more easily-defined access to the shores of Rhode Island. But Senate leadership doesn’t seem interested in passing its own version of the legislation before it could be signed into law by the governor. / PBN FILE PHOTO/DAVID LEVESQUE

PROVIDENCE – A bill providing increased, more easily defined access to the shores of Rhode Island was passed by the state House of Representatives on Thursday, but Senate leadership doesn’t seem interested in passing its own version of the legislation before it could be signed into law by the governor.

The passage of the House bill, which was introduced by state Rep. Terri Cortvriend, D-Portsmouth, comes after a legislative study commission held numerous hearings on the subject during the past nine months, following years of activism by advocates for shoreline access who were fighting over boundaries with waterfront homeowners.

The bill was a product of that study commission, providing the right to access the space within the recognizable high tide line plus 6 more feet landward.

It would replace a complicated precedent set by a 1982 R.I. Supreme Court decision that interpreted rights to shoreline access that are provided in the state’s constitution, which was written when farmers used ox carts on the beach to gather seaweed to use as fertilizer. The court decision dictated that land within the mean high tide line, an average derived from 18.6 years of high water elevation data collected in daily tidal gauges.

- Advertisement -

The 1982 court decision and the public’s understanding of the murky boundaries it defined has been the subject of many disputes involving private property owners and people trying to enjoy the shoreline in front of private homes, such as one in 2019 that led to the arrest of shoreline access advocate Scott Keeley in Charlestown, leading to a $25,000 legal settlement in his favor that was reached with the town after he filed a lawsuit.

“Public shoreline rights have long been cherished by Rhode Islanders, which is why they were guaranteed in our state constitution in the first place,” Cortvriend said, after the passage of her bill on Thursday. “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.”

However, a spokesperson for Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio said there are bigger priorities right now than passing a version of the House shoreline access bill for Gov. Daniel J. McKee to sign into law, noting that the senate has not studied the bill or held any hearings about it.

“This House bill is not a focus at this time,” said Greg Pare, a spokesperson for Ruggerio. “The Senate president is focused passing Senate bills and on utilizing our record surplus to provide relief to struggling Rhode Islanders.”

While advocates for shoreline access celebrated the victory on Thursday and called on supporters to write their senators urging them to pass its own shoreline access bill.

Meanwhile, a nonprofit group of coastal property owners called the Shoreline Taxpayers Association for Respectful Traverse, Environmental Responsibility and Safety Inc. has vowed to sue the state if it passes the bill, seeking compensation for what it deems would be a government taking of land.

Cortvriend, however, said she’s confident in the bill crafted by the House after months of hearings convened by the commission formed to study the issue. In addition to granting access to people 6 feet beyond the visible high tide line, also known as the “wrack line,” the House bill would also exempt owners of shoreline property from liability for the public’s activities in that area.

“Our commission put a great deal of care into this legislation, 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,” Cortvriend said. “I’m proud of this legislation, and I look forward to finally settling this question for the Ocean State.”

Marc Larocque is a PBN staff writer. Contact him at Larocque@PBN.com. You may also follow him on Twitter @LaRockPBN.

No posts to display