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6/2/2022 House approves bill to clarify public shoreline access
STATE HOUSE – The House of Representatives today approved legislation to establish a more practical and recognizable boundary for the area of the shore to which the public is entitled access. The bill now goes to the Senate.

Introduced by Rep. Terri Cortvriend, who led a special commission to study the long-simmering question of where the public area ends and where private property begins, the legislation sets the line at six feet landward from the recognizable high tide line.

Introduced by Rep. Terri Cortvriend, who led a special commission to study the long-simmering questions surrounding lateral access to the shore, the legislation defines where the public can exercise its privileges to the shore as described in Rhode Island’s state constitution. The bill establishes this area as beginning six feet landward from the recognizable high tide line.

“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 this legislation, 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’m proud of this legislation, and I look forward to finally settling this question for the Ocean State,” said Representative Cortvriend (D-Dist. 72, Portsmouth, Middletown).

The right of Rhode Islanders to access the shoreline was written into the state constitution in 1843. Yet exactly where the public shoreline ends and private property begins has been 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.
The Special Legislative Commission to Study and Provide Recommendations on the Issues Relating to Lateral Access Along the Rhode Island Shoreline, led by Representative Cortvriend, began meeting in August to study the issue, and the legislation introduced is the result of that work.

The legislation (2022-H 8055A) defines in state law the publicly accessible shoreline as the area beginning 6 feet landward of “recognizable high tide line,” the line of seaweed, scum and other debris left by the water on the land, also 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, 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