RICHMOND, R.I. — For two and a half hours, Rhode Islanders told a House study commission that the state’s law around shoreline access needed to change. They didn’t have to travel too far from where the problems are happening to make their case: The House panel went to Chariho Middle School in Wood River Junction to take the pulse of people who live along and use the shore.
The pulse was running pretty high: People told stories about standing in wet surf or floating in canoes, in areas that were clearly public-trust land, as private homeowners accosted them. They recounted arguments over digging clams (”They’re taking our clams!” one wayward property owner allegedly said) and parking cars and casting lures. They mentioned problem areas in South Kingstown and Narragansett, in Middletown and Portsmouth and Newport, Charlestown and Westerly, from under-the-radar fire districts in Warwick to the Swift property in Watch Hill (Taylor’s mansion).
“The shore is the soul of Rhode Islanders, and people would die for their soul,” Jann Campbell, of North Smithfield, told the panel, standing on the stage of the middle school auditorium as a few dozen people watched in the theater chairs.
The commission has been meeting every few weeks since August to discuss the issues surrounding shoreline access. Shore access has been an issue for a long time in the Ocean State, but it has become particularly heated in the past year and a half, as COVID lockdowns forced people to go outside and opt for staycations in Barrington instead of trips to Tampa. More no-parking and no-trespassing signs appeared, as did more community groups ticked off about them.
The study commission is expected to release recommendations on the issue early next year. The commission, which includes subject matter experts and two House members, sprang out of a proposal in the General Assembly to decriminalize trespassing within 10 feet of the most recent high tide when people are exercising their constitutional rights. It didn’t go anywhere, but the House convened this panel to explore the issue and get input. They heard directly from the people, at least on one side of it, Thursday.
“This is Rhode Island, we’re the Ocean State,” said Providence resident Stefan DiPippo. “We’re not a resort town to live in two months out of the year and bail in wintertime. We pay our taxes, we have a right to the shore. If we don’t have a right to the shore, we may as well live in Connecticut — and no thanks.”
Nobody at the meeting gave a full-throated defense of shoreline property owners. But they’re out there, and they’re paying attention. One oceanfront Charlestown property owner, Jean Roland, said in a written submission to the commission that she was alarmed by the “rhetoric and harassment” from certain coastal access advocates.
“We as well pay taxes and as a resident have the right to feel safe on their own property and inside their homes,” she wrote. “Unfortunately without support from the Town Council the harassment is now sadly common place in Charlestown Beach.”
Roland wrote that public access to the shore should be respected and recognized — along with private property rights.
Rhode Islanders have the constitutional right to gather seaweed, pass along the shore, fish and swim from the shore, and pass along it. But where’s the shore? Right now, the law is muddled, according to critics. Under a 1980s state Supreme Court decision called the Ibbison case, the line between public access is called the mean high tide line, which is measured over a roughly 19-year cycle.
The Ibbison decision was criticized Thursday, as often happens in these settings. Even though private property proponents say it does a good job balancing private property and public access, people who favor the latter say it’s too vague and too limited, especially when constitutional rights are at stake.
“We must set aside Ibbison and rethink and redefine what that boundary line is between public and private property along the shore,” said Cynthia Zerquera-Martin, a Narragansett resident who serves as chair of the town’s coastal access improvement committee.
While many of the conversations about the tradition of access in Rhode Island trace the history to the 17th-century colonial charter and Roman law, it predates the arrival of Europeans. And that point was made in the only speech of the night for which people stood and clapped.
“Narragansett town was named after my tribe,” Bella Noka said. “The beach was named after my people. Yet I cannot access that beach without paying a cost.”
Noka said she’s often asked, when she goes to the ocean for ceremony, what she’s doing there. As she stands on land that was stripped from her people, she’s told she’s on someone else’s property.
“At what cost do you sell your church for? At what cost do you sell your mosque for? At what cost do you sell yourself for?” Noka said. “Because this is not for sale. And we will get access.”