RI shoreline access
Rhode Island Shoreline Access Coalition

Bill aims to protect Rhode Islanders from prosecution over shoreline access

The right of Rhode Islanders to access the shoreline has been inalienable since it was written into the state constitution in 1843. Yet exactly where the public shoreline ends and private property begins has always been as tumultuous and unsettled as the waves washing along Rhode Island’s shores.

A 1982 state Supreme Court case 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 nearly impossible for anyone walking along the shore to know where that shifting line is. 

While many efforts to clarify the definition over the years have gotten mired, Rep. Terri Cortvriend and House Minority Leader Blake A. Filippi have proposed legislation (2020-H 7755) that takes a different route to finally secure the public’s constitutionally guaranteed shoreline rights.

The legislation would prevent the criminal prosecution of anyone who attempts to exercise their constitutional shoreline rights on a sandy or rocky shore within 10 feet of the most recent high tide line.

By exempting this area from criminal prosecution, the bill shifts away from the trickier effort of redefining where private property ends and public property begins. The legislation also offers a definition of accessible shoreline that is far easier to determine by beachgoers, property owners and any law enforcement officers investigating trespassing complaints.

As sea level rises, Rhode Island could be forced to contend with this issue more, said Representative Cortvriend (D-Dist. 72, Portsmouth, Middletown).

“I have been working this session on several issues related to sea level rise, and through that work became more aware of the need to address this ambiguity. As tides bring the edge of the water further and further up the shore, and also erode the land there, we are going to face more situations where waterfront property owners and beachgoers are in conflict. Along the way, I’ve also found that this is an economic issue for the state, because beaches and shores play such an integral role in our tourism industry. We are constitutionally obligated to protect Rhode Islanders’ lateral access to the shore, and failure to do so could potentially cost us money. We think we’ve found an approach that can work, and we look forward to exploring it this session,” said Representative Cortvriend.

Both lawmakers represent coastal communities and were initially working on separate bills, but decided to partner in a bipartisan effort to finally resolve this issue.

“Our legislation doesn’t attempt to interpret the constitution or define where private property ends and public property begins; it only says someone can’t be criminally prosecuted for attempting to exercise their constitutional shoreline rights within a defined area of the shore. Our goal is to provide a more practical definition of where these activities can take place, and to get the criminal law out of these disputes, which will go a long way resolve much of the conflict that has only increased in recent years,” said Leader Filippi (R-Dist. 36, New Shoreham, Charlestown, South Kingstown, Westerly).

 The bill was developed with assistance from Professor of Marine Affairs Dennis Nixon, who teaches and researches coastal zone law at University of Rhode Island, and has the support of Clean Ocean Access and the Rhode Island Saltwater Anglers Association.

“This bill takes the Supreme Court’s final guidance and will change the law of criminal trespass to account for the fact the boundary is constantly in motion, subject to natural erosion and accretion, and will always be impossible to determine by the casual citizen out for a stroll,” said Nixon. “By using the shore’s most recognizable feature, the wash line, as a starting point, providing a narrow path to pass with that as an obvious visual reference will enable citizens to take advantage of their constitutional privileges of the shore without fear of criminal trespass. At the same time, it will also preserve mean high water as the official legal boundary in deeds and titles for purposes of distinguishing public and private rights.”

Said Clean Ocean Access Executive Director Dave McLaughlin, “I am beyond grateful to see H7755 introduced in the General Assembly, as Clean Ocean Access was founded on a call to action to protect our right to access the shoreline to enjoy the ocean. Whether you collect seaweed, enjoy riding waves, fishing or simply find peace by being near or in the ocean, we need to make sure that everyone resident of the state can enjoy the ocean and shoreline, and have the ability to move around freely at the water’s edge.”

The bill was introduced Feb. 26, with Representative Cortvriend as the lead sponsor and Leader Filippi as a cosponsor, along with Rep. Kathleen A. Fogarty (D-Dist. 35, South Kingstown), House Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert E. Craven (D-Dist. 32, North Kingstown) and Rep. Carol Hagan McEntee (D-Dist. 33, South Kingstown, Narragansett), and has been assigned to the House Judiciary Committee.