Rhode Island has promised shoreline access to its citizens since before the Revolutionary War; put another way, shoreline access has been promised longer than Little Rhody has been a state. On paper the “Shoreline Access Bill” or H-8055, as it’s officially named, is a rare piece of fisherman friendly legislation and it has accumulated dozens of cosponsors. But shoreline landowners have formed a coalition, hired an attorney and assured swift legal action if the bill is passed into law.
The first shore access decree was made by King Charles II in 1663, “They shall have full and free power and liberty to continue and use the trade of fishing upon the said coast,” says the official transcript—I imagine it being written on a tattered scroll. In 1842 that promise was made stronger when it was included in the Rhode Island Constitution, “The people shall continue to enjoy and freely exercise all the rights of the fishery, and the privileges of the shore, to which they have been heretofore entitled under the charter and usages of this state, including but not limited to fishing from the shore, the gathering of seaweed, leaving the shore to swim in the sea…” Then the same excerpt was amended in 1986 to include “passage along the shore” as another right of citizenship.
You may be asking yourself, ‘what is the legal definition of the shore?’ That question went unanswered until 1982, after a group of volunteers who were cleaning litter off of a beach in Westerly were arrested after a particularly petulant landowner called the police and ordered that they be removed. The group won their appeal in Superior Court but the case went all the way to the top where the Supreme Court decreed in “the State vs. Ibbison et. al” that the limit of the legal shoreline was the mean high tide mark as observed over the last 18.6 years. Yes, that’s right, not 18, not 20… Eighteen-POINT-SIX. If I’ve done my math correctly, that’s 13,586 high tides, I suggest you buy the expensive tape measure.
In addition to the impossibility of measuring nearly two decades of high water marks, there’s another problem; sea level rise has ensured that the mean high water mark over that span of time would be underwater most of the time, forcing those exercising their rights to the shore to wade. It barely seems like a right at that point. You may remember that a man was arrested in South Kingstown in 2020 for defying a security guard’s orders not to pass by a group of private homes, even though the charges were nearly immediately dropped, the spotlight cast on the issue has brought us to Bill H-8055. And the opposing sides – citizens who demand that the promises made in Rhode Island’s founding documents be upheld and the landowners who think that their inflated property taxes should buy them exclusivity – are more at odds than ever before.
This is where the Rhode Island General Assembly comes in. Last year, they formed a special commission to provide feedback on shoreline access and the challenges it presented. The commission was headed by Terri Cortvriend and included representatives from several outfits ranging from Save The Bay to the Rhode Island Realtors Association. After hearing testimony from citizens on both sides, studying case law and trying their best to stick to the original wording in the state constitution, they have settled on defining the shoreline as ‘the recognizable high tide line, plus 10 feet’. The group arrived at the additional 10 feet by measuring an old ox cart used to gather seaweed and allowing an additional 2 feet for the driver who would have been beside the cart on foot. The new definition passed unanimously, except for two members who abstained; the representative from the Attorney General’s office, citing that it could lead to lawsuits against the state and the rep from the Realtor’s Association.
Waterfront landowners have made their displeasure known, especially because the current legislation doesn’t define what a person can and cannot do, for example, there’s nothing stopping anyone from setting up for a beach day in someone’s back yard. Other landowners feel that the extra 10 feet is robbing them of 10 feet of private land and have threatened to demand restitution from the state if the new definition is made into law. Cortvriend has said on multiple occasions that they are not trying to steal private land, they are only trying to provide legal passage for citizens exercising their right to the shore.
Citizens of Rhode Island, this is one that we have to keep a watchful on. It is all too common that the wealthiest citizens get their way. The ‘observable high tide plus 10’ designation would be a great thing for fishermen across the state and would serve anyone who wishes to enjoy the natural beauty that is the Rhode Island shoreline. Giving in to the selfish wishes of the ‘few with a view’ would only serve to embolden these elitists. Giving them the power to wield their tax bills like a scythe, cutting down proposals that don’t serve their personal interests. The rest of us, those of us without a view, we are the majority and we need to let our representatives know that their failure to uphold shoreline rights will result in an undesirable outcome on Election Day.