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6/15/2023 Bill clarifying public shoreline access clears Assembly
STATE HOUSE – The General Assembly today approved legislation sponsored by Rep. Terri Cortvriend and Sen. Mark P. McKenney to establish that the public area of the shoreline is 10 feet landward of the recognizable high tide line. The bill now goes to the governor.

The bill (2023-H 5174A, 2023-S 0417A) is intended to finally provide a clear delineation of where the public area of the shoreline ends and private property begins.

The right of Rhode Islanders to access the shoreline was written into the state constitution when it was adopted in 1843, and further delineated after the 1986 constitutional convention. Yet exactly where public area ends remained a debated issue that has intensified 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.  

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

Representative Cortvriend led a House commission from 2021 to 2022 that studied the question of how the state should define the area of the shoreline that is public. That commission recommended defining the boundary of the public area at 10 feet landward of the recognizable high tide line, also known as the “wrack line,” recognizable by a line of seaweed, scum and other deposits left where the tide reached its highest point.

“Public shoreline rights have long been cherished by Rhode Islanders, which is why they were guaranteed in our state constitution in the first place. But it’s impossible to protect that right when no one can tell where the public shoreline ends. The lack of a clear definition has caused problems in our state for decades. Our commission put a great deal of care into exploring this issue, working with experts, advocates and property owners to develop a reasonable definition of the public shoreline’s edge that will protect Rhode Islander’s constitutional right without taking private property. I believe this legislation is a very fair way to finally settle this question, which really should be clear in a place known as the Ocean State, where beaches and shores are so critical to our identity and economy,” said Representative Cortvriend (D-Dist. 72, Portsmouth, Middletown).

Said Senator McKenney (D-Dist. 30, Warwick), who also served on the study commission, “The rights of all Rhode Islanders to use the shore are very strong and very old. Starting with British common law, through our charter of 1663, all the way to our state constitution, we have enjoyed the privileges of the shoreline. Well-intentioned judges in 1982 established that access point as the high-water mark, but that line cannot be seen by a casual beach-goer, and changes with surprising frequency. This bill will establish once and for all a practicable solution to the question of access and preserve one of the most important rights enjoyed by Rhode Islanders.”

The legislation specifies that, in places where there are multiple wrack lines, the one closest to the water will be the one from which the 10 feet is measured. Where there is no visible wrack line, the 10 feet shall be measured from the wet line on the sand or rocks.

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, such as rocky cliffs and sea walls, there is no passable area for the public to access.

For more information, contact:
Meredyth R. Whitty, Publicist
State House Room 20
Providence, RI 02903
(401) 222-1923