Along the Ocean Drive in Newport, Rhode Island. (Getty photo)
If you’ve ever had trouble finding or getting to the shore through public rights-of-way, now is the time to speak up – or rather, comment online.
State coastal regulators and environmentalists are seeking public input through an online survey aimed at understanding and improving public access to the shore. Results of the survey will be used to help formulate a comprehensive, first-of-its-kind statewide plan that enshrines the public’s coastal access through designated rights of way.
The study and forthcoming plan come amid increasing attention on the importance of public shoreline access as well as realization of inequitable distribution of access points across the state.
“With the pandemic, more and more people are seeking opportunities to be near the shore,” said Monica Allard Cox, communications director for Rhode Island Sea Grant which is partnering on the study. “What we found was more conflict at some of these sites because there were more people using them.”
Lawmakers have also sought to clarify where to draw the line in the sand delineating public versus private access along the shore, with competing proposals up for consideration in the State House again this year.
Meanwhile, data from the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council suggests that an overwhelming amount of the 235 designated rights-of-way to the shore are concentrated in certain communities. For example, Bristol has 30 rights-of-way, while Providence and Cranston have three apiece, according to CRMC.
“We wanted to try to do what we could to improve equity,” Allard Cox said. “But first, we needed to know what people wanted.”
Hence, the study, which is open online through May 26, although there will also be an opportunity for in-person input this summer, according to Leah Feldman, a coastal policy analyst with CRMC.
The 15-minute questionnaire, developed by the CRMC, Rhode Island Sea Grant, and the Narragansett Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve with input from nonprofit consultant Impact by Design, seeks to understand how people use and get to the shore through a series of multiple choice and sliding-scale questions. There is also a section where survey takers can select which of the designated rights-of-way they use, and any problems they have, using an interactive map.
The needs assessment and study is funded by a $206,300 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration awarded in October under a highly competitive grant process in which only seven coastal states received funds, according to CRMC. Results of the survey will be used to help formulate a Public Access Shoreline Plan, designating specific rights of way and policies to ensure access in a fair and equitable manner.
Allard Cox said study organizers are hoping to have at least several hundred people take the survey, although really, more is always better.
We’re not only looking at the data from a statistical standpoint, really for any input people can give us,” she said.
And the more public attention the issue generates, the easier it will be for project partners to secure funding for the forthcoming plan, Feldman said.
“If there weren’t any people at all concerned it might be tougher for us to make a fair case for why we need the funding,” Feldman said. “It’s really a matter of momentum.”
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