NARRAGANSETT – A special legislative committee formed to study coastal access rights in Rhode Island has announced the appointment of its membership. The list includes elected officials, resident representatives, state leadership, real estate representatives and more.
“There have been disagreements about where the public’s access ends and private property begins for centuries,” said Representative Terri Cortvriend (D-Dist. 72, Portsmouth, Middletown), a sponsor of the legislation that approved the group. “While there have been efforts to clarify the public’s rights over the years, rising sea levels and erosion are changing the coast, and creating more conflicts along the way. There are many questions about how Rhode Island is supposed to determine and protect access rights, and we need to identify some clearer answers. I very much look forward to the interesting and important work of this commission.”
Narragansett, which has numerous public rights of way to access the shoreline that are backed by state legislation, has recently wrestled with the issue in a Point Judith neighborhood and popular destination for local water recreation and activities such as surfing and fishing. Property owners on Louise, Pilgrim and Conant Avenues, where these rights of way guarantee public access to the water, argued against establishing additional parking opportunities in the area, leading shoreline access activists to ask if a right of way was truly public if minimal parking was offered. Ultimately, the Narragansett Town Council approved additional parking in the neighborhood, and property owners recently countered this decision by suing the town.
The commission was formed after legislation establishing the body was approved by the Rhode Island House of Representatives in June.
The group will include Representative Cortvriend (D-Dist. 72, Portsmouth, Middletown), Rep. Blake A. Filippi (R-Dist. 36, New Shoreham, Charlestown, South Kingstown, Westerly); Michael Rubin, who will serve as a resident of a coastal community; Coastal Resources Management Council Executive Director Jeffrey Willis; David Splaine, representing the Rhode Island Realtors Association; Julia Wyman, representing the Marine Affairs Institute and Rhode Island Sea Grant legal program at Roger Williams University; Dennis Nixon of the Marine Affairs Department at University of Rhode Island; Save The Bay Executive Director Jonathan Stone; land use attorney Mark P. McKenney; Mark Boyer of the Rhode Island Society of Professional Land Surveyors; retired Rhode Island Supreme Court Justice Francis X. Flaherty and a representative of the Attorney General’s Office with experience in shoreline access issues, to be appointed by the attorney general, according to a press release from the state.
An organizational meeting is planned for Thursday, Aug. 26, at 2 p.m. at the State House.
Rhode Islanders’ right to access the shoreline is outlined in the state’s constitution dating back to 1843, yet the debate between beachfront property owners and the general public was waged for years. A 1982 state Supreme Court case established the boundary of the public’s shore access at the mean high tide line, defined as the average of high tides over an 18.6-year cycle, which continually changes with the shifting sands of the coast. The Supreme Court’s decision has led to much conflict because it is nearly impossible for anyone walking along the shore to know where that shifting line is. In 1986, the voters of Rhode Island overwhelmingly supported an amendment to the state constitution strengthening the description of the privileges to the shore enjoyed by Rhode Islanders.
The first meeting of the new shoreline access commission is scheduled for Thursday, Aug. 26 at 2 p.m. at the State House.