Lawmakers debate where to draw the line for shoreline access

A long struggle to define exactly where the public’s right to the water starts may hinge on seaweed

By: - April 5, 2023 4:00 am
beach and ocean at low tide.

Clumps of seaweed are shown on Sachuest Beach at low tide in Middletown, (Photo by Larry Weisman for Rhode Island Current)

Disagreement over where to draw the literal line in the sand may again prove a barrier to improving shoreline access.

A proposal from Rep. Terri Cortvriend, a Portsmouth Democrat, would let people roam the beach, fish or swim as long as they don’t go more than 6 feet inland from where the seaweed collects, also known as the wrack or high tide line. In the opposite chamber, Sen. Mark McKenney, a Warwick Democrat, introduced legislation that would carve out public access to the beach anywhere below the vegetation line.

Rep. Terri Cortvriend of Portsmouth hopes 2023 will be the year to pass legislation marking exactly where the public’s rights and privileges of the shore may be exercised.(Photo courtesy of Rhode Island House of Representatives)

Neither bill matches the special legislative study commission’s recommendation to set the boundary 10 feet landward of the high tide line. That recommendation, which resulted from a six-month study into shoreline access featuring expert research and public comment, remains the top choice among some environmental and fishing groups. 

Private property owners don’t appear to like any of these options, decrying an “unconstitutional taking” of their property, according to testimony submitted by Daniel Procaccini on behalf of the Shoreline Taxpayers Association for Respectful Traverse, Environmental Responsibility and Safety, Inc.

All this to say: the decadeslong struggle to define public vs. private shoreline still faces rough waters.

Whether you’re a professor from URI or just a lay person, you can look down at the water and see where the wrack line is. It’s visible and it’s understandable.

– Greg Vespe, executive director for the Rhode Island Saltwater Anglers Association

Cortvriend was optimistic.

“If you look at big, significant bills, it usually does take a lot of time, like three or four years,” she said. “I am hoping we are working toward resolving this. I hope it’s this year.”

Cortvriend sponsored the exact same legislation last year, which unanimously passed in the House, but failed to get a companion bill in the Senate.

Speaking to the House Judiciary Committee during a March 28 hearing, Cortvriend said she was hoping for a “do-over.”

Others are with her.

 Dozens of coastal scientists and researchers, environmental and fishing associations and residents who live in coastal communities have written to and spoken before lawmakers calling for a long-overdue cleanup to the cloudy – and unscientific – waters around public shoreline access.

The state constitution enshrines the right for people to “enjoy and freely exercise… the privileges of the shore” but doesn’t say how much of the shore is up for enjoying. A 1982 Rhode Island Supreme Court decision set the boundary at the mean high water line, a marker which can’t be determined without extensive scientific measurements and expertise, and,  as climate change intensifies, has shifted underwater.

Defining public access based on the high tide line is clearer and easier, and more reflective of the constitutional right to shoreline access, proponents say.

Whether you’re a professor from URI or just a lay person, you can look down at the water and see where the wrack line is,” said Greg Vespe, executive director for the Rhode Island Saltwater Anglers Association, speaking to lawmakers on March 28. “It’s visible and it’s understandable.”

While the study commission proposed a 10-foot buffer from the high tide line, Cortvriend’s bill whittles that down to 6 feet based on what top House lawmakers supported, she said.

The constitution doesn’t say we can enjoy a section of the shore. It’s the shore, period.

– Sen. Mark McKenney, a Warwick Democrat

McKenney, who also served on the study commission, said he thought both options were a bit too “conservative.” His proposal, extending access up to the vegetation line, aims to give Rhode Islanders as much beach space as possible, he said.

“The constitution doesn’t say we can enjoy a section of the shore,” he said. “It’s the shore, period.”

The House Judiciary Committee unanimously voted Tuesday to send Rep. Terri Cortvriend’s shoreline access bill to the full chamber for a floor vote. (Photo by Nancy Lavin/Rhode Island Current)

The vegetation line was not one of the five boundary options that the study commission examined. Cortvriend worried that House lawmakers might not be on board, especially without legal vetting.

“I don’t think the House leadership is going to be thrilled with the vegetation line,” she said.

House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi was not available for comment Tuesday.

But Cortvriend’s bill is already winding its way through the legislative process, having secured uanimous approval from the House Judiciary Committee Tuesday, with a vote before the full chamber  scheduled for Thursday.

McKenney wasn’t deterred. He wasn’t against Cortvriend’s version, but wanted to give his idea a chance before discussing hypothetical compromise legislation. A hearing on McKenney’s bill has not been scheduled.

Senate President Dominick Ruggerio will not be “prejudging”  legislation, according to spokesman Greg Pare. Pare also said the Senate has not had much time to analyze and consider the issue, since the study commission’s recommendations were introduced late in the 2022 session. 

Amid conflicting legislation, some shoreline access proponents have suggested reverting back to the commission’s recommended 10-foot buffer zone. 

“We urge the two chambers to work together to find a solution we can put into law this year, as opposed to getting hung up on where the line is and precisely the right balance,” said Michael Woods,  chairman of the New England chapter of the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, during a March 28 hearing. 


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Nancy Lavin
Nancy Lavin

Nancy Lavin is senior reporter covering state politics, energy and environmental issues for the Rhode Island Current.