MIDDLETOWN, R.I. — Face-to-face arguments over shoreline access are not unusual in Rhode Island — as the cliche goes, it is the Ocean State. But two things make a recent one in Middletown stand out: The video depicting it has racked up more than 5 million views on TikTok as of Monday afternoon, and the events the video depicts have resulted in a criminal charge.
Here’s the story behind a video you might have already seen.
Cheyne Cousens, 40, says he often used a public shore access point on the Esplanade waterfront when he was growing up nearby. There’s a state-designated shore access right-of-way — a path where the public has the legal right to walk to access the shore — around where Shore Drive meets Esplanade. On Thursday, Cousens wanted to get to the water for a swim, so he rode his e-bike there. It’s just a few minutes from the family surf shop he manages. The beginning of the path is marked with a sign. Cousens got to the grassy public access path, which is bounded to the left by some hedges, and headed down to the water, he said. Toward the end of the path, he saw some bushes in the way, he said.
Cousens said he then turned right and walked roughly parallel to the water, where he came upon a set of stairs. He remembers being able to access the water by a set of stairs in the past, but these stairs were chained off. (It turns out the stairs he used to use are now gone, he said.) There was a private property sign by the stairs and some chairs. He took out his phone to get pictures and video to send to someone he knows — Conrad Ferla, a coastal access advocate whom he knows from the surfing community.
While Cousens was taking video of the stairs and general area around it, a man approached him and said, “Can I help you?”
“Yes, sir?” Cousens said, turning around, in a brief video that captures the very beginning of the incident.
That video ends and there’s a short gap that’s unrecorded; during this time, the man told Cousens there were other shore access areas on Easton’s Point. A police report based on the property owner’s account said Cousens became “irate”; Cousens noted he addressed the man as “sir,” and said in his opinion, the property owner was the aggressor. Cousens started filming again. That’s the start of the video you may be seeing on TikTok and other social media sites. The man told Cousens he was on private property and needed to leave.
“It says shoreline public access, right there,” Cousens said, pointing at a sign back at the area where he’d started.
Cousens said based on the man’s demeanor, he didn’t know whether or not the man was right. The man told him the public access was back at the area where the sign was — they were by then some yards away — and that the area was for viewing. Cousens wanted the man to call the police to sort it out.
“You could be some rich (expletive) who wants to (expletive) with me,” Cousens told the man.
“I am a rich (expletive), and I am (expletive) with you, now get off my (expletive) property,” the man says.
The man listed as the owner of the parcel, Randy Rauchle, could not be reached for comment. . Rauchle also owns a home across the street, as well as the lawn where the events unfolded.
Rauchle called the police. The video ends after about four minutes. Cousens said he waited for police off Rauchle’s property. When they didn’t show up after a few minutes, Cousens left.
On Saturday, Cousens went back to the area — this time, staying on the road and the public access path, he said. He took video of that, too. Wearing a Black Sabbath T-shirt, he acknowledged that a few days before, he had in fact strayed from the right-of-way onto the privately owned lawn. But there’s no clear demarcation showing just how wide the public access path is, and where the private lawn begins, Cousens said. It’s grass in both places. There is a sign by the stairs that says “no shoreline public access,” but he said later he didn’t know if it referred to just the stairs or the whole area, especially based on his memory of being able to access stairs in years past.
“You could see how this could be an issue to the public,” Cousens said in the second video, while acknowledging that the property owner was right about it being his private property.
Later that same day, the Middletown Police Department got in touch. The property owner wanted to press charges over the incident Thursday. Cousens turned himself in on a charge of willful trespass, a misdemeanor, and left with a court summons.
Police said Cousens is facing the trespassing charge because although he hadn’t been given a formal warning by police, he was told by the property owner to leave multiple times and refused to do so.
The officer who wrote the police report noted that there are likely to be more “incidents” with the passage of Rhode Island’s shore access law. The law gives people the right to access the shore if they’re no more than 10 feet from the recognizable high tide line. It doesn’t apply in cases like this, like if someone is above the vegetation line, the officer noted.
Since the video came out, reaction has been divided. Even some people who post in a large Facebook group for coastal access advocacy have argued Cousens was in the wrong. Others have criticized the arrest, and the blockage at the end of the right-of-way for sparking the incident. Cousens himself said he was just innocently confused about where he could be. In an interview, Cousens acknowledged he could have handled the resulting dispute more maturely.
The incident has reached a level of virality such that a video responding to the initial video, siding with the property owner, is also doing big numbers.
“Half the people are saying, this guy’s being a punk and antagonizing this guy, which I agree, I was,” Cousens said. “Other people are saying, why is this guy so angry about someone being on his lawn and a misunderstanding?”
Cousens has a court date on the trespassing charge in August. He said he really was just trying to get to the shore that day, not make a point about shore access. Definitive statistics are hard to come by, but the last time a trespassing arrest related to shore access was widely reported was when Charlestown resident Scott Keeley got arrested in South Kingstown while collecting seaweed in 2019. That charge was quickly dropped. A civil trespassing suit was filed after a shore access dispute in 2021. That case settled out of court.
There’s also the question of why the access point at Shore Drive and Esplanade is blocked at the end by bushes.
Clean Ocean Access, a nonprofit, said the right-of-way is “quite hazardous,” with a steep drop-off to the rocky beach below. Some obstacles are due to a storm sewer project a few years ago, the group wrote in its 2021 access report.
The group didn’t respond to a request for comment, but in a response to a social media post, it wrote that the incident was an “example of the public misunderstanding their right to the shore.” The right-of-way is only 18 feet wide, and the area outside that zone, by the chairs and stairway, is owned by a person “who graciously allows COA to use his stairs for testing water quality,” the group wrote. It’s unclear how the bushes got there.
Because of erosion and coastal resilience efforts, access to the shore was eliminated in 2012, and the right-of-way has been for viewing only since then, the group wrote. Access to the water itself — beyond just viewing it — is available elsewhere nearby, the group wrote. The group hopes to restore the pathway in the future, “and it will be essential to have the support from surrounding private property owners!” Indeed, the property owners are listed as Clean Ocean Access donors of between $100 and $499 for a few years.
Ferla, the coastal access advocate, said in an interview that there should be a straightforward solution to the problem.
“The best way to solve this going forward is to clear all the hedges on the right of way, open the right of way, and get a new set of stairs,” Ferla said. “If there were stairs there in the past, there can be stairs there in the future.”