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R.I. report draws a new line in the sand: the recognizable high tide line

The 12-member House panel offered clearer guidelines for public access to the Rhode Island shore, mirroring legislation introduced recently by the panel’s co-chairs

Property owners erect fences and post signs marking their territory on Charlestown Town Beach in Rhode Island.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE — A 12-member House panel studying shoreline rights in Rhode Island published its report on the topic after meeting for the final time Thursday.

The report, dated Thursday and uploaded online for the public Monday, includes a historic photo of an ox cart collecting seaweed on the beach in Little Compton 100 years ago, as well as a scientific diagram showing the problems with current practices surrounding shore access.

To solve that, the report recommends the state adopt a new boundary line for access: the “recognizable high tide line.”

That mirrors the legislation that was recently introduced by the commission’s co-chairs, state Representatives Terri Cortvriend and Blake Filippi, which is up for a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee Tuesday. The recognizable high tide line, as the bill describes it, would fix the boundary for people to exercise their shore rights and privileges at a line 10 feet landward from the wrack line. The wrack line is the visible mark on the sand left by the high tide, identifiable by debris like seaweed. That has historic precedent, the report says: 10 feet is wide enough to bring one of those ox carts down to the shore to collect seaweed.

“This historical seaweed boundary is visible, is easily determined by the public, private property owners, and law enforcement, and it ensures the public can safely exercise their rights and privileges of the shore,” the report said.


The legislation would effectively do away with the “mean high tide line,” at least as the boundary for people to exercise their rights. That line comes from a 1982 state Supreme Court court case called State v. Ibbison. It’s been controversial ever since.

The 12-member expert panel, which included real estate interests, lawyers and environmental advocates, was convinced that the mean high tide line was an inappropriate boundary: It isn’t a visible mark on the sand, but a measurement taken over a nearly 20-year cycle. The current data is from 1983 to 2001. And while the line itself doesn’t change – it’s the average of high water heights – the place it lands on a dynamic and shifting beach does. The line also provides much less access than people think, scientists from the URI Coastal Institute told the commission at a meeting in October.


Some shore access advocates say that not only was the Ibbison decision bad, but it was effectively overturned by a 1986 state constitutional amendment. Rhode Islanders have had some form of access to the shore since the state’s royal charter, but in 1986, the state got specific, saying people had rights including but not limited to passage along the shore, leaving the shore to swim, fishing and collecting seaweed. How can you collect seaweed or pass along the shore, some argue, if the state is using a line that’s underwater the majority of the day on some beaches?

Nevertheless, shore towns, state regulators (reluctantly) and private property owners (enthusiastically) still often point to the mean high tide line. The recently introduced legislation would do away with that as a boundary for access rights; using the “recognizable high tide line” instead would represent an expansion of access purely by square footage over using the mean high tide line. One study found that the mean high tide line was an average of 19 to 20 meters closer to the sea than the last high tide swash line on a Rhode Island beach. It would represent an expansion in principle over the mean high tide line, too, because it would guarantee some form of shore access at all points of a typical non-stormy day.


But to people who favor access, the legislation wouldn’t be an “expansion” of anything. It would simply be a restoration and a guarantee of a right that’s been there all along, sometimes thwarted by property owners and a faulty court decision. While property owners have threatened to sue over a taking of private property, the only thing that’s been taken is Rhode Islanders’ constitutional rights for the past 40-odd years. The commission, in not so many words, agreed.

“A consensus from Commission members was reached (with the Rhode island Attorney General’s Office abstaining), on restoring and using the historical seaweed line with a reasonable buffer zone landward of 10 feet,” the report says. “A buffer zone of 10 feet landward uses the historical ox cart width example and also accommodates testimony received of two people walking safely, above the seaweed line, along the shore side by side approaching another two people walking towards them.”

The report made other recommendations after this “redefinition of the Rhode Island shore to its historic limits”: Among other steps, the state should try to identify funding for the Coastal Resources Management Council and Department of Environmental Management to support shore access, law enforcement and education; work with the attorney general to enforce illegal shore signage; and boost CRMC’s ability to designate access points to the shore.


Brian Amaral can be reached at brian.amaral@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @bamaral44. Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.