SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Keith Wilcox is the first one to tell you he loves the beach. He loves bringing his dog, an English setter named Brady, to romp off-leash in the sand. He loves the house he bought in 2004 along the beach in South Kingstown, which he calls Second Day. That is the day, in the Genesis account, that God created the seas.
He understands why everyone else loves the beach, too. What he cannot understand, and certainly does not love: People smoking cigarettes and starting fires on private land. The town of Charlestown filling its parking lot to the gills, raking in a ton of money but letting the problem spill over into adjacent South Kingstown. And the whole debate over beach access that seems to entirely miss the fact that people still have private property rights.
“I love the beach, and I want everyone to love the beach,” Wilcox said recently. “There’s access all around. There’s plenty of places to go.”
Just don’t stay on his property.
The Boston Globe interviewed Wilcox on the Friday of Labor Day weekend to get a picture of what the debate over beach access in Rhode Island looks like from a private beachfront home. Activists have loudly clamored for more access to the shore, which can often get blocked off by private encroachment, and decried the very notion of private beaches. But there’s another side, too, one that favors property rights, and Wilcox is willing to own it. Sitting at a table on his deck, with his cat Booboo purring at the interviewer’s legs and aggressive black flies biting at the interviewee’s, Wilcox explained that he and his fellow property owners are not opposed to beach access.
In fact, he wants more. He wants the state to designate more rights-of-way — he’ll be on a Zoom later this month to learn more about these sometimes-hidden gems of Rhode Island access — and to give people more opportunities for open space. But there is also room, he said, for private property rights. The concept of “private beaches” is anathema to people who favor more coastal access, but to Wilcox, it’s a simple and unavoidable fact: He owns it, he maintains it, he pays property taxes on it, all the way down to the mean high tide line.
“Most people respect property rights,” said Wilcox, who owns a house and a sandy parcel in front of it across the road, “and 99.9 percent of people would be on our side.”
All the media scrutiny over beach access in Rhode Island might make it seem like the state is particularly inhospitable to it, bristling with coastal defenses like wartime, 1944. Wilcox says that’s not the case: It surely has a healthier access culture than in Massachusetts, where people can own even further down toward the water. And Rhode Island simply has much better beaches than Connecticut, where he’s from, so that makes a comparison there pointless.
It’s no Oregon, whose courts have decreed a right to access dry sand, but Rhode Island has enshrined in its constitution the right to access the shore, for things like swimming, fishing, passing along the shore and collecting seaweed. A 1982 state Supreme Court case called the Ibbison decision fixed the boundary between those public rights, and private land rights, at what’s called the mean high tide line — an average of high water marks over 18.6 years.
Since the decision came out nearly 40 years ago, there’s been a lot of debate about how to measure that line, what can happen on either side of it, and whether it should be abolished entirely. But it’s not an entirely new question: The law goes back to Roman times.
Fast-forwarding from the Roman times, and pro-access activists have gotten organized online. Some argue the Ibbison decision is so confusing that it’s effectively null and void, entirely unenforceable, or that a 1986 change to the constitution rendered it legally obsolete. Much of the media attention around that debate comes from the perspective of people who want more public access. It is not surprising: People who want more public access are more likely to say it publicly. People who want more private property rights are more likely to be private about it.
Property owners do, though, speak amongst themselves about it — in text message chains and over beers at local watering holes. Wilcox said others are afraid to speak out for fear of retaliation, which often occurs online, he said. He was willing to do so in part because he lives pretty far down from the Charlestown town beach, but also because nobody else was willing to do it.
“I look at it and say, everybody is protesting, and nobody is standing up and saying, wait a minute, we own this property,” Wilcox said. “We paid for it, we pay taxes on it, we take all the liability if someone gets hurt.”
The property that Wilcox owns is on Charlestown Beach Road, but it’s not in Charlestown. It’s over the town line just to the east in South Kingstown. He owns a house there, Second Day, as well as a parcel on the other side of the road, an undeveloped and sandy, pristine stretch of coastline. If you look at it on the town’s mapping website, you’d see the red lines marking his property going all the way out into the waves on the particular day that satellite photo was shot. A private beach, in other words. My beach, Wilcox calls it.
It is the sort of situation that tends to enrage beach-access advocates, who say it’s impossible to own all the way into the water. Earlier this year, some lawmakers proposed decriminalizing trespassing on a 10-foot swath of dry sand from the most recent high tide mark, which would give people rights they could see with the naked eye.
The proposal didn’t go anywhere, and instead the House of Representatives is doing a study commission, but private property owners are still on high alert about it. Wilcox said it’s clearly unconstitutional to take 10 feet of private land and give the public access to it without compensating the owners. That would mean millions and millions of dollars, potentially billions, along Rhode Island’s 400 miles of shoreline, Wilcox argues.
“The law is very clear,” Wilcox said.
Some people, a reporter pointed out to him, say the beach should be free for everyone to use.
“If I said your car belongs to everyone, does your car belong to everyone?” Wilcox said, gesturing toward his driveway. “If I said your house belonged to everyone, does it belong to everyone? It’s nice to want. It’s another thing to pay for it.”
Wilcox is no stranger to controversy on beach access issues. In one notable instance, he said someone left a sign about beach access on one of his beach chairs. He went to the home of Scott Keeley, a Charlestown resident who became a prominent figure in the access debate after he got arrested while collecting seaweed on the beach, to drop it off. Wilcox believed Keeley left it there. Keeley said he did not. A police report, but no charges, ensued. A witness, a painter working on Keeley’s home, alleged that Wilcox said that someone was going to lose teeth. Wilcox said he mumbled something under his breath, and didn’t think it was loud enough for anyone else to hear it. He acknowledged he was very angry at the time — passions can run high — but couldn’t remember exactly what he said. They were “not pleasantries,” he said.
It was all very meta: trespassing allegations over a trespassing debate. Wilcox was told not to go there again, which he said he’s fine with.
Keeley, for his part, bristles at the notion that private property owners are just fine with people walking along the shore. And, he said, he still has all his teeth.
“I really appreciate that they are willing to take it upon themselves to dole out my constitutional rights and mete them out as they see fit,” Keeley said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “Thank you very much. It’s a big job, I know, but I would prefer to just handle my constitutional rights by myself. I will take all of them at once, thank you very much.”
Besides some unsubtle digs about Keeley losing a Charlestown Town Council race last year, though, Wilcox was in no mood to relitigate the Keeley squabble as he walked on the beach — “my beach,” as he called it — with a reporter. The weather was beautiful, as it would be throughout most of the Labor Day weekend. It was early afternoon, the sun was shining but not oppressive, and the waves were lapping up onto the sand.
This far down from Charlestown Town Beach, Wilcox himself doesn’t have problems very often with people trespassing. He hasn’t had it surveyed, although neighbors have, and he has chairs and some sports and exercise equipment — a chin-up bar — rather than signs telling people to buzz off. He did see two people having sex on a neighbor’s stairs that led to their private beach about three years ago, in the middle of the day. People do sometimes smoke cigarettes or start fires or leave trash. One time Wilcox was asked by a few kids who were allegedly trespassing up the beach if his own family and friends could move so they could use his volleyball net. And the first time he brought his mom there, shortly after he bought it, they did encounter four beachgoers who were sunbathing, as the French might say, au natural.
Mostly, though, people go about their day, oblivious to the debate that’s playing out in the basement level of the State House. He’s OK with people walking along even above the mean high tide line, as long as they keep walking. Setting up a chair and an umbrella above that line, though, would clearly be trespassing, and he’d clearly take an issue with it.
His side of the debate, Wilcox said, is supported rather simply in the constitution. And also the Bible: Thou shalt not steal. Even still, Wilcox is willing to forgive those who trespass, as long as they don’t put a towel down and an umbrella up.
Just then a young man with a fishing rod and a little girl, almost at the dunes, started walking across the beach. He waved to them. They did not wave back.
“I have no problem with this,” Wilcox said. “As long as they keep moving.”