PROVIDENCE — Earlier this month, a plane towing a banner over beaches in the state eschewed the traditional marriage proposal or car dealership advertising to make a political statement: “THE RHODE ISLAND SHORE IS NOT PRIVATE!”
Not to be outdone, a second group of people who take a different view of things is getting its own. That one will fly from noon to 3 on Saturday, towing a banner that says, “RI TAKES PRIVATE PROPERTY,” with a link to the libertarian Pacific Legal Foundation’s website decrying Rhode Island’s new shore access law.
And not to be out-outdone, the people who arranged the first banner are raising now funds for yet another one. It will say: “THE RHODE ISLAND SHORE IS STILL NOT PRIVATE.”
The skies over Rhode Island are getting crowded as the fight over shore access in the state goes airborne, and also plays out on the ground. Such is life along the Rhode Island shore in the wake of the General Assembly’s passage of a law improving people’s right to access the shore in the state.
The law, which passed in June, gives people the right to access the shore as long as they are no more than 10 feet above the recognizable high tide line, also sometimes called the seaweed line or wrack line. The law rejects the use of the mean high tide line, which critics said lacked clarity and physical space to access the shore. Opponents say the law is an unconstitutional taking of private property without compensation, and they’ve sued to block it.
But the law remains in effect, prompting towns to figure out what it actually means in practice. It’s already been tested on a handful of occasions, with crucial distinctions coming into focus, such as: If you’re in this new access zone, can you set down a towel and chair?
The general consensus among towns and police departments where it’s been tested: Yes.
Some town officials who are trying to navigate the new law, meanwhile, said it won’t change much about their approach to shore access disputes, which don’t actually reach the law-enforcement level all that often. If a private property owner calls them to say someone’s trespassing on a beach, police will try to mediate the situation, rather than put someone in handcuffs.
In a place like Charlestown, that was the practice before the law went into effect, and remains the practice even with the new law putting the boundary at the recognizable high tide line plus 10 feet.
“What are you going to do, break out a tape measure and start measuring from the wrack line?” said Charlestown Town Administrator Jeffrey Allen.
To be clear, the answer to that question is no.
“We’re not about to arrest people on the beach,” Allen said. “It’s just not going to happen.”
On the other hand, the town also isn’t going to be involved with private property signage, Allen said. Allen said he got an e-mail recently about a sign that says, Private beach to wet sand. The new law says people have access at least 10 feet above the wet sand.
First Amendment concerns preclude any action on that, Allen said.
“I said to the person, ‘We’re not going to go into private property and start removing signs,’” Allen said.
The signs might stay, but the law has helped remove some ropes in Westerly. Over the Fourth of July holiday, police responded to a call about ropes on the beach in front of a condo association, the Atlantic Beach Casino Resort. The ropes were well within the new 10-foot boundary, so they were blocking people’s access, police said.
The condo association’s employee wasn’t particularly helpful, said Westerly Police Chief Paul Gingerella. The owner was more cooperative, but in the meantime, police went to untie and remove the ropes themselves.
“Problem solved,” Gingerella said, “for now.”
It was solved, in part, with the help of the new law’s added clarity, Gingerella said.
The other notable incident since the law went into effect happened in the same place where, four years ago, a Charlestown man was arrested while collecting seaweed on the beach, helping inspire the law. Earlier this month, not long after the law went into effect, Keeley was walking toward the beach area in front of a private home just over the line in South Kingstown past the Charlestown town beach when a security guard hired by a property owner told him he couldn’t set up there. He was, he said, within 10 feet of the recognizable high tide line.
Keeley called the police, a sort of reversal of the 2019 incident. Charlestown officers arrived on scene and told the security guard, and someone on the phone, that Keeley could indeed sit below the new access boundary line.
Keeley, meanwhile, wanted the security guard charged with blocking access under a different area of state law.
But the guard wasn’t putting hands on Keeley or otherwise physically restraining him, said Matthew Moynihan, chief of the South Kingstown Police Department. (The incident was right on the South Kingstown-Charlestown line, so it involved a multi-jurisdiction response.) Keeley could have stepped left or right on the wide swath of beach there.
“That’s not obstruction,” Moynihan said.
As for whether someone can set up something like a beach chair if they’re within that new access boundary: Moynihan said the law doesn’t address it.
“We wouldn’t be taking any action on that,” he said.
Keeley, for his part, said the new access law was having its desired effect, at least on that day. When the police said he had the right to be there, Keeley set up, and as other beachgoers watched, they started to do the same. Educating people about the law will be crucial, Keeley said.
“The law is clear,” Keeley said. “That’s the biggest relief.”
To opponents, though, the only thing that’s clear is the violation of their constitutional rights, and their relief is being sought through the courts.
The plaintiff in the lawsuit is a group called the Rhode Island Association of Coastal Taxpayers. RIACT is being represented for free by the Pacific Legal Foundation, the same group that’s arranging for that second banner. Its lawsuit said the law quickly led to “trespassing” on beachfront properties.
RIACT’s president, David Welch, owns a vacation home in South Kingstown — close enough to the Keeley incidents that he actually went there to see what was going on and got into a discussion with the officer and security guard.
In an interview, Welch was circumspect about the effect the law has actually had on the ground, noting it’s only been a short time. But he argued that the legal upshot is pretty obvious: it violated property owners’ rights.
“I don’t know if it’s changed things for people or not,” Welch said, “but it’s taken the control that they have over a piece of property that they own.”
That will be the subject of a court case that has only just begun. And also, this weekend, the topic of yet another airplane banner as this long-running dispute keeps on rolling.