CHARLESTOWN, R.I. — If you wanted to find the ground zero for shoreline access problems in Rhode Island, and the difficulty state regulators have had in addressing them, you’d be hard pressed to find a better one than this narrow strip of sand leading from Charlestown Beach Road to Charlestown Beach.
Wide enough to tote a cooler and a beach chair, the path is owned by the town of Charlestown. A sign by the entrance, though, dubiously proclaims, “Private Property. No Trespassing. Violators Will Be Prosecuted.” The sign itself is on private property, but is so close to this town path that you might think the path itself was private too. If you went ahead and ignored that sign, you’d find sweeping views of the Atlantic Ocean. But you’d also see more signs on more fencing, stretching out toward the sea — so far that it’s allegedly in violation of state coastal regulations.
So what can state coastal regulators do about all that? Very little, and when they’ve tried, it hasn’t gotten anywhere fast.
“It doesn’t really matter where you live, or how much money you have,” said a measuring-tape-toting Rhode Island coastal regulator named Brian Harrington. “Everybody can go to the beach.”
That’s the hope, at least. Officials with the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council, an independent state agency whose job is to help make that a reality, recently took the Globe on a tour of the coastline they are responsible for regulating.
What emerged was a portrait of regulators trying to shovel against a proverbial king tide, with not enough staff or funding to deal with the deluge.
‘It’s kind of a nutty time’
Rhode Island has 400 miles of shoreline, but only two Coastal Resources Management Council enforcement personnel. (They’re hiring a third; they say they could use maybe six or seven more.) CRMC is in charge of permitting development along the shore, and punishing people for doing it wrong. But because of underfunding, they can only react to complaints, not proactively enforce the rules. They could spend all their time on fences and have plenty of work. They can’t spend all their time on fences. They can’t even just spend time on shore access issues; the CRMC’s regulatory world stretches from 3 miles offshore to 200 feet inland, and from wind power to aquaculture.
When they try to address problems, like that bit of fencing on Charlestown Beach Road, they often run into roadblocks. Harrington has issued a cease and desist and a fine over the fence; the CRMC permit for it had expired a few years ago, and the fence was even farther out into the sand than that permit had allowed. Harrington was willing to compromise and wasn’t even telling them to remove all the fence, just the part of it going out the farthest. But the property owner hired a lawyer and appealed. And the CRMC has no hearing officer to deal with things like this right now. So the process has all but stopped. The bureaucratic process might seem indifferent, even if the enforcers are not.
The fencing was still there in mid-November, about six months after CRMC first started telling the owners to do something about it.
In a phone interview, owner Jeanie Roland told the Globe she was just trying to replenish an eroding beach with the fencing by replacing an old, vandalized system with one that people wouldn’t hurt themselves on. The fencing can help the buildup of sand, and the CRMC allows it for that purpose, but you need to get a permit to build on such coastal features. When Roland went out earlier this year to fix the fence, she didn’t get a permit, but she did get a hostile reaction: One neighbor threw a football at her head, twice.
“He missed, twice,” Roland said.
She added: “It’s kind of a nutty time.”
Indeed: Probably the only reason this little bit of fencing came up is because the area around here has been a focus of shore access fights. Just to the left is where a high-profile trespassing arrest took place; just to the right is where a high-profile trespassing lawsuit kicked off. Someone reported the fence on this shore access hotspot to CRMC. If nobody had, there’s almost no way CRMC would have known anything about it.
Overwhelmed with complaints
Harrington, standing on the beach in Charlestown, said he saw non-permitted shoreline work, mostly fencing, as far as the eye could see. But they only had the time to deal with the most egregious cases.
And what about the “private property” sign out front? Any better news there? What could the CRMC do about that?
“Nothing,” said Laura Miguel, the other half of CRMC’s enforcement presence along the state’s 400 miles of coastline.
“Yeah, no,” agreed Leah Feldman, a CRMC policy analyst who has taken up access issues as part of her broad portfolio.
“We don’t regulate language,” Miguel said. “We regulate the posts.”
This post is on private property. The sign could falsely state “Caution: Minefield Ahead,” or “Alien Abduction Risk High,” and CRMC’s hands would be tied. They often are, Feldman said, even if they’re trying to do the right thing.
Roland, the owner, said she did not believe the path is actually public to everyone, as many locals insist — the town administrator says it’s publicly owned, but access questions are muddled because of deeds and safety issues — but that in any event, the sign referred just to her own adjacent property, so it was truthful. It is just another sign, she said, of how agitated everyone is getting about the shore. That agitation is helping muck up the CRMC process; her lawyer can’t even get a meeting with the agency because they’re so overwhelmed with complaints, she said.
“It’s the salt air,” she said. “It gets up everybody’s nose.”
It always has. Just ask Herman Melville, noted Feldman, the policy analyst. People have been drawn to the ocean for time immemorial. Her own research for her thesis at URI showed that when you give people access to a natural resource, they’re more likely to want to take care of it.
Commission considering changes
The CRMC’s work, when people know about it, can be controversial. When it makes the news, it’s because of the decisions by its gubernatorial-appointed council — see the contretemps over Champlin’s Marina on Block Island, for one recent example, or the fights over wind power — rather than the career bureaucrats who issue permits or fines for work on coastal features.
But even the feds have taken notice of the broader structural problems at the CRMC level.
“Current staffing levels limit the coastal program’s ability to address violations in a timely and effective manner,” the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, wrote in a March 2020 report.
The report told the CRMC it had to start a new web interface by 2024 to more effectively track permits and enforcement, and recommended increasing fines. They were unchanged in 20 years, and so low that many violators simply see them as the cost of doing business.
A state study commission is considering possibly reforming CRMC’s structure. Session by session, its successes but also its shortcomings are on display.
You might expect the CRMC’s professional staff to try to spin that or deny it or deflect it, but they know and feel these critiques even more than NOAA or a study commission does. And they seem just as vexed by it as the coastal residents who sometimes take issue with the CRMC’s decisions.
“How did they get away with doing that?” a local man named Bobby Kelly, walking a dog named Belle, said as he pointed at a revetment — basically a big rock fortification — protecting a mansion by Green Hill Beach in South Kingstown.
He suggested maybe it was the Department of Environmental Management. The answer is that while the structure predates CRMC, CRMC permitted maintenance of it many times going back years. They don’t have the authority to order its removal, the CRMC’s leadership told aggrieved Rhode Islanders in 2005 when they wrote to complain about recent work being done on it. More than 10 percent of the CRMC’s staff — four people — was standing nearby as Kelly talked about how it interfered with access.
“We haven’t, I don’t think, really prevailed legally when we get into a situation where someone says, ‘My structure is going to be imperiled if I can’t do this,’” Miguel said later.
“It’s been tough to stand by our prohibitions, ‘black and white, no you can’t,’ because a lot of structures — well, a lot of structures predate us. They need to be maintained,” said Laura Dwyer, the CRMC’s spokeswoman, who also joined the tour. “So even though we don’t allow new ones, there’s still a lot of them scattered everywhere. And unfortunately, the damage has been done.”
Small win in Gaspee Point
CRMC often stands at the intersection of the protection of private property from literal erosion and the protection of public access from figurative erosion. The revetment Kelly was taking issue with may protect a mansion from falling into the sea, but it’s also accelerating erosion on either side of it. On that day in mid-November there was no dry sand between the revetment and the water.
“This is going to come up more and more with climate change and sea level rise,” Feldman noted.
Rhode Island faces stark choices in a climate-altered future. Hardening the coasts to protect from sea level rise will often come at the expense of public access, because the sea isn’t the only thing seawalls can keep out.
That was at play in Warwick, where a property holder extended a sea wall without getting a CRMC permit in Gaspee Point in the 1990s. A big no-no: If you’re building close to the shore, you generally need to ask the CRMC. Instead of having them tear it up, the city and CRMC allowed them to keep most of it — so long as they granted public access.
But that was forgotten to the sands of time, and in the intervening years, someone put up a sign that blandly and falsely stated: “Private Property, Residents and Guests Only.”
Harrington told Spring Green at Gaspee Point LLC that the sign needed to come down earlier this year. This time, because there was an agreement to ensure public access, the CRMC had more leverage to deal with the sign. Harrington also noted they’d failed to construct stairs, as the original agreement called for.
The sign did indeed come down, and questions lingered over how to make it more accessible for people with disabilities, as well as what new sign should go up. It was a win for the CRMC, coming at a time when they’re sometimes up against powerful law firms — the council basically only has one part-time lawyer dedicated to its work — stubborn opposition and, of course, politics.
“It just feels good to help the public at large have access to an area like this,” Harrington said about the progress on Gaspee Point. “A situation where a lot of people didn’t know they had access.”
Limited firepower, even more limited budget
Other times, CRMC’s enforcers have been less successful, sometimes hobbled by decisions made elsewhere in the agency. Take Blu on the Water, a bar in East Greenwich that had faced years of scrutiny about encroachment on a plot of land that the CRMC had designated as an access point to the shore. In 2016, CRMC issued a cease-and-desist order about the potential blockage. But the bar has received CRMC permits from another part of the agency for other work there, including a sound stage.
“The right-of-way is really not provided for public use in any way, shape or form,” Andrew Nota, the East Greenwich town manager, said at a CRMC forum in September.
Jeffrey Gladstone, attorney for Blu, said his clients aren’t interfering with any shore access, which they have not even acknowledged is a properly designated right-of-way. It hadn’t been tested in court, he said.
“While CRMC has taken a position, that doesn’t mean they exist as a matter of title law,” Gladstone said.
It serves as a stark illustration of what Peter Neronha, the attorney general, meant when he said recently not everyone always takes the CRMC seriously. It’s harder to ignore Neronha than an agency whose fines aren’t really that expensive — the Charlestown fence fine was $1,500 — and end up languishing in a bureaucratic maze anyway.
There’s also the question of finding more state-designated shore access paths. There are currently around 230 such rights-of-way in the state, and the CRMC has a goal of finding one for every mile of coast, so that’s 170 to go. The pace has been sluggish: In one recent five-year stretch, just one new right-of-way was designated, in part because the politically appointed council had undergone changes but also because staff’s attention had been diverted to wind power, according to the NOAA report.
So what’s the CRMC budget for finding and identifying new rights-of-way?
With limited firepower, they’ve found some success with compromise; at North Kingstown Town Beach, an adjacent property owner put up a sign with a sandwich board that marked the start of private property. They also strung along some sort of buoy rope, roughly at clothesline level for a small child. CRMC had them remove the rope, but not the sign.
It wasn’t perfect, Miguel said. But it was progress.
“We’re the Ocean State, and the coastline is our greatest asset,” Miguel said. “Because of that, we have to protect it. it belongs to all of us.”