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In Rhode Island, rights-of-way offer another way to get to beaches

How close do you need to be to the water to freely roam along the coast? R.I. experts want you to know more about your rights to access the shore

Beach goers walk along the high surf on Bailey's Beach in Newport, R.I., Aug. 4, 2020.
Beach goers walk along the high surf on Bailey's Beach in Newport, R.I., Aug. 4, 2020.David Goldman/Associated Press

PROVIDENCE — They are in neighborhoods around Rhode Island, nestled between private homes or obscured by overgrowth. Sometimes nearby property owners try to block them. And sometimes people just don’t know they exist.

As the summer approaches, shoreline rights supporters want more people to know more about public rights-of-way — how they came to be, and how Rhode Islanders can use them to exercise their constitutionally protected rights.

“There are opportunities to get to the shore that are not as traditional as people think,” said Jeffrey Willis, executive director of the Coastal Resources Management Council, a state regulatory agency. “Rights-of-way have their own uniqueness to them. We’d like people to check them out.”

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Starting June 1, the Coastal Resources Management Council and the Rhode Island Sea Grant are hosting three webinars on rights-of-way and everything else that falls under Shoreline Access 101.

Willis said last year highlighted the need for “more and improved” shoreline access in Rhode Island. The COVID-19 pandemic meant getting outside was safer. So was avoiding crowds. But as people tried to take it outside along the shore, they faced access challenges, Willis said.

Much of the controversy over shoreline rights in Rhode Island centers on parallel access: How close do you need to be to the water to freely roam along the coast? Rhode Islanders have a constitutionally guaranteed right to the shore, including for fishing and swimming, walking along the shore, and collecting seaweed. The place where those rights end, and private property rights begin, is called the mean high tide line, an average of high water heights over an 18.6-year cycle.

That’s impossible to measure with the naked eye, which can cause friction between people smacking their flipflops into wet sand and property owners who claim they own the land all the way down into the water. Shoreline rights advocates say some private property owners overstate their claims, but those owners have hired surveyors to make their case and, in some cases, security guards to enforce it.

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Rights of way, on the other hand, are one way people can access the shore in the first place, perpendicularly. Getting to the ocean doesn’t have to mean paying for parking at a state beach or joining a private club: CRMC has designated 229 rights-of-way around the state — often narrow and sometimes unmarked pathways for people to walk down to get to the shore. The pathways lead to scenic overlooks, sandy beaches, boat launches or a place to cast a lure.

They’re mostly the product of neighborhood developments. When the roads were being plotted out, cities and towns took possession of strips of land that extended down toward the water, but they didn’t actually build a road all the way down there. Years later, they still belong to the town, and thus the public.

That means that although there is a collection of officially designated rights of way, there are certainly more out there waiting for a municipal attorney and a CRMC rep to find them and put them on the list. That is its own fairly complex approval process at CRMC. It also involves a lot of time sitting in vaults looking at old records to find out what belongs to whom.

Willis said CRMC’s goal is to have one right-of-way per mile of Rhode Island coastline. At the current pace, it would take more than a century: Some years they only designate one or two, and some years they designate none. They recently designated three in North Kingstown.

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Willis said they need more resources to identify and designate rights-of-way. They’d also like to improve signage, branding and messaging, and to bring rights-of-way to urban and underserved communities. That’s the sort of stuff they’ll talk about at Shoreline Access 101.

“We want to make sure people understand they have the ability to get down to the water,” Willis said.


Brian Amaral can be reached at brian.amaral@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @bamaral44.