PROVIDENCE — House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi is floating the possibility of a study commission on access to the Rhode Island shore, a hot-button topic that may only get more controversial as people start taking it outside in the nice weather.
The House and Senate are currently considering legislation that would decriminalize trespassing along a 10-foot swath of the Rhode Island coast. Supporters say this would clarify — not to mention expand — where people can access the shore in Rhode Island.
But they have not won over the House speaker, a Democrat of Warwick.
“I have spoken with the sponsor of the House legislation and this is an issue that may be appropriate for a study commission to take a much closer look at during the off-session,” Shekarchi told the Globe in an email. “No decision has been made yet.”
The sponsor is state Representative Terri Cortvriend, a Democrat of Portsmouth. The Senate Judiciary Committee had a hearing on the legislation Thursday night. Under the legislation, people who were within 10 feet of the most recent high tide line wouldn’t be subject to prosecution under the state’s trespassing law if they were exercising certain state rights, like passing along the shore or collecting seaweed.
Shoreline access issues are always present in Rhode Island, which has 400 miles of coastline and, according to the novelty T-shirts, is 3 percent bigger at low tide (experts say this is humorous but not true). The debate has been even more pronounced in recent years after Scott Keeley, a Charlestown resident and shoreline rights activist, was arrested on the beach in South Kingstown in front of some private homes. Homeowners had hired security, who called the police, who arrested Keeley, who sued and settled for $25,000.
The law in Rhode Island is unique. People in Rhode Island are allowed to walk along the shore, collect seaweed, and fish and swim from the shore. These are rights enshrined in the state constitution: The public has constitutional shore rights, a state Supreme Court case said, below what’s called the mean high tide line. Above it, private property can begin. To convict someone of trespassing along the coast in Rhode Island, authorities would have to prove the person knew where that line was and intentionally crossed it into private land.
The mean high tide line measurement seems straightforward, but it’s not. It’s not the line where the water stops on a particular day, but the average line over a 18.6-year cycle.
Private beachfront homeowners have hired surveyors who say their property lines actually extend out into the water at all times, meaning they own every grain of sand and could, if they wanted to, eject anyone who was on it. Critics say this is geologically and legally impossible. But the authorities sometimes take the sides of the homeowners. And it can seem at times that for every Rhode Islander, there’s a different interpretation for what you can do and where you can do it along the water.
To deal with the confusion, legislators are proposing the bill to decriminalize trespassing 10 feet from the most recent high tide line on the sandy or rocky shore. Democratic State Sen. Alana DiMario, the sponsor of the bill, likened it to a sidewalk for public use. She said at the committee hearing Thursday that it wouldn’t take anyone’s property away, and private property owners could still have rights to sue in civil court even if they decriminalized trespassing. Ten feet is significant in its own right: It’s enough space to bring down an ox cart, as people used to do to collect seaweed, a good fertilizer.
As it stands now, “there is no way for a person to know if they’re breaking the boundary or not,” DiMario said.
The homeowners, meanwhile, are more reluctant to speak out in the press than those who say they just want to enjoy the rights of the shore.
They’re less reluctant to speak out behind the scenes. To that end, in March, a group called Shoreline Taxpayers for Respectful Traverse, Environmental Responsibility and Safety, Inc. — pronounced Starters — was quietly launched in Rhode Island. This group hired lobbyists and lawyers.
They are pressing particularly hard against the bill to decriminalize trespassing if someone was within 10 feet of the most recent high-tide line. In a white paper circulated among lawmakers, their lawyers say the state would have to pay an astronomical amount of money to compensate homeowners for such a maneuver.
“In sum, the Proposed Amendments conflict with state law and upset the balance of rights concerning Rhode Island’s shoreline,” the white paper, authored by Adler Pollock and Sheehan attorneys, concluded.