Commission to discuss shoreline access legislation today


STATE HOUSE – After months of meetings by a commission studying one of the longest-standing constitutional questions in Rhode Island, Rep. Terri Cortvriend has introduced legislation that would finally provide a practical and recognizable boundary for the area of the shore to which the public is entitled access.

The legislation, introduced last week, is scheduled for a roundtable discussion today by the commission studying shoreline access.

The Special Legislative Commission to Study and Provide Recommendations on the Issues Relating to Lateral Access Along the Rhode Island Shoreline will meet today, Thursday, March 31, at 2 p.m. in Room 101 on the first floor of the State House, when it will discuss the legislation and its draft report. No public testimony is scheduled at this meeting.

The right of Rhode Islanders to access the shoreline has been inalienable since it was written into the state constitution in 1843. Yet exactly where the public shoreline ends and private property begins has been a simmering issue that has increased with development of the shoreline over the last century.  

A 1982 state Supreme Court case, State vs. Ibbison, 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 impossible for anyone walking along the shore to know where that shifting line is.  Largely in response to this court decision, the 1986 Constitutional Convention presented an expansion of the public’s privileges to the shore with the addition of Article I, sections 16 and 17, which were overwhelmingly approved by voters with the largest majority of support of any of the proposed changes considered.   

In recent years, coastal access advocates have pushed for a solution, including by getting arrested in a contested waterfront area.

The commission has been meeting since late August to study the issue, and the legislation introduced is the result of that work.

The legislation (2022-H 8055) would define the publicly accessible shoreline as the area beginning 10 feet landward of the highest point reached by the water during high tide, as indicated by the line of seaweed, scum and other debris left by the water on the land, known as the “wrack line.”

The legislation also exempts owners of shoreline property from liability for the public’s activities in that area, and recognizes that in some waterfront places, there is no passable area for the public to access.

Representative Cortvriend (D-Dist. 72, Portsmouth, Middletown) said the commission — which includes experts and stakeholders from across the spectrum of waterfront use issues — carefully deliberated ways to balance landowners’ rights with the right protected by the state constitution.

“We all came into this with the understanding that it would be a challenge to address the conflict with the decision in the Ibbison case. But we all agreed that it needs a clear answer, for once and for all. How can we protect the public’s privileges to access a place without telling anyone where that place is? The status quo serves no one — neither the public nor shoreline property owners — because everyone’s rights are unclear,” said Representative Cortvriend. “With this bill, while we are not changing property lines; we are providing a practical, visible line on the shore that must remain accessible to the public, ensuring the integrity of this right.”

The legislation was introduced March 25 and assigned to the House Judiciary Committee, which has not yet scheduled a hearing on it.

“Shoreline access is important to Rhode Islanders, which is why our citizens and leaders saw fit to include that right in our constitution in the first place. We are the Ocean State, after all. We have a responsibility to provide a meaningful answer to the question of where the public can exercise their constitutional rights,” said Representative Cortvriend.