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The Rhode Island Senate must act to preserve the shoreline

The bill passed by the House is the best chance we have to remedy a problem 40 years in the making, says a professor at New England Law Boston

Beach-goers at South Shore Beach in Little Compton, R.I.Diane Bair

In our hyper-partisan world, bipartisanship is often a stretch; unanimity seems impossible. Yet just this week, Rhode Island’s House of Representatives unanimously passed a shoreline access bill. Yes, you read that right: every single present member of the House of Representatives voted to pass a bill protecting your right to access the shoreline. Not a single member voted against it.

But that victory will be hollow if the Rhode Island Senate proceeds on its current course. No companion bill has been introduced in the Senate and the Senate spokesman Greg Paré says the issue is “not a focus at this time.” With the part-time legislature planning to adjourn by the end of the month, time is running short.


The bill passed by the House is the best chance we have to remedy a problem 40 years in the making. In 1982, the Rhode Island Supreme Court haphazardly affixed the extent of the public’s right to the shore at a point that is often underwater. The case was a rushed affair: no oral argument, stipulated facts, and a limited record. But the ramifications were immense. For the first time since our colony’s founding in 1663, the public’s right to the shore had been significantly curtailed.

Rhode Islanders didn’t abide such a taking of their public property. Just four years later the voters overwhelmingly passed a referendum to amend the state constitution to include the right of “passage alone the shore[.]” That should have settled the matter.

However, the Rhode Island Supreme Court has not subsequently addressed the amended language. Nor has it overruled its 1982 decision. The result is a legal headache: private property owners wave the 1982 decision while shoreline advocates point to the state constitution. Clarity is needed.

That’s what this bill does. It makes plain where the public’s right to access the shoreline is, preserving that right for all. And it’s an idea that everybody can get behind; after all, it got unanimous support in the House.


That makes the Senate’s inaction all the more troubling. The clock is ticking. The Senate needs to act now to bring this bill to a vote. Rhode Islanders depend on it.

Sean Lyness is a Faculty Fellow at New England Law Boston. He was an expert witness for the Rhode Island Shoreline Access Commission when the shoreline access bill was brought before the Rhode Island House Judiciary Committee.