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New R.I. shoreline access committee plans additional meetings in communities where beach access is in question

“To the extent we could be out there in the field where the conflicts are occurring would lend some greater credibility to the work we’re trying to do,” one member said.

Katy and Tom O’Connor walk Easton Beach in Newport with their daughter Coralie, 4, on Sunday, Aug. 24, 2021.Christiana Botic for The Boston Globe

PROVIDENCE — A House commission looking into shoreline access in Rhode Island met for the first time Thursday afternoon in a basement-level hearing room at the State House, but almost immediately focused its attention on Rhode Island’s coasts.

The shoreline access study commission will hold at least one meeting in parts of the state where questions of access are arising, the panel informally decided.

“To the extent we could be out there in the field where the conflicts are occurring would lend some greater credibility to the work we’re trying to do,” said Dennis Nixon, a shoreline legal expert who’s one of the 12 members.


The commission will meet again in Providence in the coming months. It will look at taking the show on the road at a meeting in November, so this won’t be a sunny summer beach junket. Possible locations outside the capital city include the East Bay and South County.

The group on Thursday also chose its chair, Democratic state Representative Terri Cortvriend, and its vice chair, Republican state Representative Blake Filippi.

Cortvriend and Filippi were both supporters of legislation earlier in the year that would have carved out a 10-foot swath of land above the most recent high tide where people could access their constitutional rights. That proposal did not gain the support of House leadership. But rather than let the issue die, the House convened this study commission to look into the issue. It’s expected to report back on its findings by March. Meetings are set for September and October in Providence. Experts will make presentations and they’ll also hear public comments along the way. The panel won’t actually make legislation, but will make recommendations.

A 1982 state Supreme Court case says people have the right to access below what’s called the mean high tide line, which is a measurement of high water taken over 18.6 years. People who favor more shoreline access say that’s not a clear enough line for people to actually be able to carry out their constitutional rights, which include in Rhode Island the right to pass along the shore and collect seaweed.


Beachfront property owners, however, say the lines are quite clear once they’ve had them surveyed. They blame seaweed bag-toting provocateurs for crossing a line, literally and figuratively, to make a point on property they’ve paid for.

Two people recently got into an argument on the beach in Charlestown, leading the property owner to sue the beachgoer for libel and trespassing. Narragansett is also facing a lawsuit for expanding parking in a surfing hotspot.

The commission includes Cortvriend; Filippi; Michael Rubin, a resident of a coastal community who first broached the idea of bringing the commission to other parts of the state; Coastal Resources Management Council Executive Director Jeffrey Willis; David Splaine, representing the Rhode Island Realtors Association; Julia Wyman, representing the Marine Affairs Institute and Rhode Island Sea Grant legal program at Roger Williams University; Dennis Nixon of the Marine Affairs Department at University of Rhode Island; Save The Bay Executive Director Jonathan Stone; former Warwick zoning board member Mark P. McKenney; Mark Boyer of the Rhode Island Society of Professional Land Surveyors; retired Rhode Island Supreme Court Justice Francis X. Flaherty; and Alison Hoffman, special assistant attorney general, environmental unit.

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