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R.I. shore access bill advances in House, but faces Senate inaction

If it became law, it would give people the rights to the shore so long as they’re below a line that’s 6 feet landward from the recognizable high tide line

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

A proposal to solidfy shoreline access in Rhode Island got the approval of a state House of Representatives committee, but its path to actually becoming law remained blocked without action by the state Senate.

The House Judiciary Committee voted Thursday night by voice vote to advance the proposed legislation. If it became law, it would give people the rights to the shore so long as they’re below a line that’s 6 feet landward from the recognizable high tide line — the last line of seaweed, shells or other tidal deposits.

The law right now as it’s understood by the courts and local governments puts the boundary for public access and private property at what’s called the mean high tide line, which provides much less access than people think — and isn’t recognizable at all without scientific instruments.


“Onto the floor,” said state Rep. Terri Cortvriend, the Democratic lawmaker from Portsmouth who introduced the legislation. “And then the work begins across the building.”

The original version of the bill would have put the new line for public access at 10 feet from the seaweed line; Cortvriend said the House leadership made the case that 6 feet could make the bill stand up better to court challenges, which private property owners have threatened to bring one way or the other. Shore access advocates say they still support the bill, even 4 feet shorter.

After getting the approval of the Judiciary Committee, the legislation still must pass the full House of Representatives. The majority of members have signed on to co-sponsor it, meaning it stands a pretty good chance of passing there.

But to become law, it would also have to pass the state Senate and be signed by the governor. The Senate isn’t even currently considering its own version as the legislative session winds to a close next month, and the leaders of that chamber are not in a hurry to start.


“The Senate President is focused on Senate bills and on utilizing our record surplus to provide relief to struggling Rhode Islanders,” Greg Pare, a spokesman for Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio, said in an emailed response to a request for comment about the House proposal. “As you note, there is no Senate version of this legislation, and it is not a focus at this time.”

Still, advocates are expected to continue to press the case that something on shore access in Rhode Island needs to change.

“I don’t want to give up on it and the advocates aren’t giving up on it, and I think that’s great,” Cortvriend said.

The proposal came out of a House study commission that Cortvriend chaired. State Rep. Blake Filippi, the Republican minority leader, was the vice chair and also a supporter of the legislation. The commission brought together experts from around the state to scrutinize Rhode Island’s shore access law, which critics say robs from the public’s constitutionally-guaranteed rights and has led to conflict and confusion. Indeed, they say the bill wouldn’t expand access at all, but restore it to its rightful place after years of encroachment by private interests.

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